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Participles: Bothersome Verbs to Avoid

Participles are verbs that act like adjectives and nouns. They are also called "verbals," and they come in two types: past and present.

The past form of this verbal requires the use of an auxiliary or "helping" verb (such as have, will, was, is, are, be, can, etc.) and often but not always ends in "ed" to show a past action. In the meat was packaged, "packaged" is the verbal. In the sentence I have eaten it, "eaten" is the verbal. Both of these past participles are used grammatically, but the use of verbals often creates passive verb forms, something all writers should struggle to avoid.

Wherever possible, exchange the passive verb with an active construction. For example, the restaurant has closed uses a participle that creates no problem. However, the car was parked uses a passive verb form, and experienced writers will change the sentence to The valet parked the car, or something similar.

Present participles (also known as progressive or imperfect) also use auxiliary verbs, but they add "ing" to the verb. In she is getting a car loan, "getting" is the verbal. As before, when writers remain unconscious of their choice, they sometimes rely too heavily on passive verbs, which results in sluggish sentences that bore readers. In addition, writers sometimes "dangle" or misplace the present participle, causing confusion. For example: Banging his fist on the wall, the plaster crumbled. This sounds as if the plaster has a fist to bang! A corrected version would read: He banged his fist on the wall and caused the plaster to crumble.

The overuse of participial phrases results in sentences such as this: Getting in the car, she waved goodbye. While grammatical, used too often this structure distracts readers (and editors hate it). A profusion of such phrases mark a writer as a beginner, and editors will sometimes comment that the writing "lacks sophistication." So while rewriting my earlier example to read, he banged his fist on the wall, causing the plaster to crumble breaks no grammatical rule, the first correction is better.

Example

Which paragraph below reads better? Which sounds more professional and polished? First this:

Standing grouped together on the garden path, were four men in their shirt-sleeves. Carrying staves covered with rolls of canvas, they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, thinking that there was nowhere to put it. She couldn't possibly throw it away. Blushing, she tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
And now this, from Katherine Mansfield's original short story, "The Garden Party."
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn't possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.

Is the second version just a little crisper and easier to visualize? I made only subtle changes to the first paragraph, but the participial phrases weakened it. The difference between publishable writing and writing that is "almost there" is sometimes this slight, and many editors would read my adaptation and cringe.

I advise authors to avoid participial phrases altogether. Early writing is filled with weaknesses, so why add another? Eliminate enough weak writing, and sometimes the result is strong, lively writing that gets published.

Related Links

500 Cliches to avoid

Passive Verbs

Punctuate Dialogue Correctly

Tight Writing Gets Published

Click here for a long list of auxiliary verbs.

Click here for further discussion of this topic.

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