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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 grammatically correct, but verbals often create passive verb forms, which writers generally aim 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

Present participles (also known as progressive or imperfect) are the ones most likely to cause problems. They 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 still grammatical, this structure makes writing sluggish, or worse, confusing.

Better to write: She slid into the car and then waved goodbye.   

A profusion of participial phrases can mark a writer as a beginner, and editors will sometimes comment that the writing "lacks sophistication."

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, written as Katherine Mansfield wrote it in her 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? The participial phrases I added in the first version weakened it.

The difference between publishable writing and writing that is "almost there" is sometimes this slight, and many editors would read that first example and cringe.

Participial phrases often weaken otherwise strong writing. Eliminate enough weak writing, and the result may strong, lively writing that gets published!

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