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The Write Way

Friday 4 March 2011

It's Not What You Say But ...


A trip to the library a couple of weeks ago saw me returning with a stack of books by authors I haven't read before (always a bit of an adventure!) and I finally found time to start reading the last one over the weekend ... It's a jolly good yarn, filled with action, murder and mayhem. There's a square-jawed hero, a feisty heroine and villains aplenty, but I haven't been able to lose myself in the story this time, and if I give you just a tiny taste of the book, I'm sure you'll see why.

Here we are a little over mid-way through the action ... the body count is rising exponentially with every chapter and our hero has been knocked out cold and left for dead as the bad guys made off with the feisty heroine. We pick up the story as he regains consciousness:

"Climbing back to full consciousness, he noticed the discomfort of the cold, hard limestone floor beneath his body ...

"Taking a deep breath, he pressed with his arms, raising his torso while pulling up his legs, until he reached a sitting position. An explosion of stars swirled before his eyes, and he nearly passed out again, staving off slumber by breathing deeply. Resting a few minutes until the dizziness and nausea passed, he noticed a cool dampness on his back. Rubbing a hand across the back of his head, he felt a stinging knot that was caked with dried blood.

"Sitting alone in the empty cavern, he called out in a weakened voice. Only silence countered his ringing ears. Grabbing the lantern, he painfully rose to his feet, the pounding in his skull ..."

But that's enough for illustrative purposes.

Now, what struck you about this extract?

Yep ... We have a writer with a penchant for present participles!

There's nothing wrong with starting the occasional sentence with a participle, in fact, you should aim for variety in sentence beginnings to keep your readers interested, and that, dear reader, is the key point here. This particular writer has fallen into the trap of using far too many present participles in his sentences and an absurd number to start his sentences.

If you go back and count, you'll find 14 examples of the present participle in that short extract ... 14!

Present participles (and past participles) are often combined with complements and modifiers to become participial phrases, and they always act as adjectives:

e.g. The old fence, having weathered many storms, needed to be replaced. (The participial phrase "having weathered many storms," modifies "fence.")

Climbing back to full consciousness, he noticed the discomfort ... (modifies the pronoun "he")

Taking a deep breath, he pressed with his arms ... (modifies "he")

Resting a few minutes until the dizziness and nausea passed, he noticed ... (modifies "he")

Rubbing a hand across the back of his head, he felt ... (modifies "he")

It's all very repetitive, isn't it?

By limiting himself to the same opening part of speech for his sentences, he sentences all of us to an identical structure for every sentence -- it becomes like a formula:

X-ing, he Y-ed.

And the entire book is the same!

The result has been that instead of worrying about what's happening to the characters, I've been counting the present participles and cringing every time another sentence begins with one -- and I know it's probably a bit of an occupational hazard for me, but I'm sure once you've spotted some little habit like this, you, too will be counting as you go, entirely oblivious to the plight of the plot.

Words are merely the tools of writers, they should never dominate to the extent that you focus on them instead of the message.

One last thing -- may I draw your attention to the following?

"An explosion of stars swirled before his eyes, and he nearly passed out again, staving off slumber by breathing deeply."

...staving off slumber ...

"Slumber," where I come from, is "a period of sleep, especially light sleep." It's not something that follows a blow to the head.

Another distraction!


And before we leave participles, we must also make mention of another problem associated with them, and this is that participles (and participial phrases) must be placed as close to the nouns or pronouns they modify as possible, and those nouns or pronouns must be clearly stated. Otherwise you run the risk of such absurdities as these:

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while travelling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope?

We know that this isn't right, but what exactly is wrong with it?

Basically, if you start a sentence with an action, you must place the actor immediately after it AND you must place modifiers near the words they modify. So, much as I hate to destroy that delightful image you have of Lincoln wending his merry way to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope, I feel it my duty to restructure that sentence: 

Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while he was travelling from Washington to Gettysburg.


While he was travelling from Washington to Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.

Here's another one to show just how easy it is to get it so wrong:

Hovering above the bay, the ornithologist observed a hawk.

Maybe it would be closer to the truth this way:

The ornithologist observed a hawk hovering above the bay.

(The hawk is doing the hovering, not the ornithologist, so that word has to be as close to the participle 'hovering' as possible.)

So the message is clear -- don't over-use one structure for your sentences and keep the participles (and participial phrases) as close to the nouns or pronouns they modify as possible.

See this very early newsletter for different ways to start your sentences

This week's Little Something Extra has lots more tips about using participles.

And no, I'm not going to tell you the name of the book or the author, except to say he's a prolific writer with a number of books on the best-seller list. Just goes to show, it's not as easy as we think to write well!

This week's quiz:

Since we've been doing a bit of grammar this week, here's an easy one -- form nouns from the following (to check if a word is a noun, pretend that the word "the" comes in front of it):

1. detain -

2. erode - 

3. confer -

4. achieve -

5. relieve - 

6. proceed -

7. impede -

8. acquaint -

9. utter -

10.fortify - 

A little tale that has nothing to do with grammar ...

A customer was in a French restaurant and the waiter had just brought him his soup. The customer called to the waiter, "Garçon! Could you taste my soup for me?"

The waiter replied, "Why, m'sieur. Is there something the matter with it?"

Says the customer, "Please taste my soup."

"Is it too hot, m'sieur?"

"No, just taste my soup."

"Is it too cold, m'sieur?"

"No, please taste my soup."

"Very well" says the waiter, "where is your spoon?"

"Aha!" says the customer, "Where IS my spoon?"

Such subtlety ... and do we not all wish for such restraint?


Last week's quiz:

hypogeusia, auscultation, ataxia, borborygmus, halitosis, sternutation, nosocomial, dysesthesia, eructate, antiemetic

1. to raise (gas and often a small quantity of acid) from the stomach; belch - ERUCTATE

2. contracted as a result of being hospitalized; hospital-acquired - NOSOCOMIAL

3. diminished sensation of taste - HYPOGEUSIA

4. a condition of having offensive-smelling breath; bad breath - HALITOSIS

5. a sneeze; the act of sneezing - STERNUTATION

6. substance that is useful in the suppression of nausea or vomiting - ANTIEMETIC

7. act of listening for sounds made by internal organs, as the heart and lungs, to aid in the diagnosis of certain disorders - AUSCULTATION

8. inability to coordinate the muscles in voluntary muscular movements - ATAXIA

9. any impairment of the senses, especially of the sense of touch; a condition in which light physical contact of the skin causes pain - DYSESTHESIA

10. a rumbling or gurgling sound caused by the movement of gas in the intestines - BORBORYGMOUS

Here's a story to touch your heart ...

"Once, I wept for I had no shoes. Then I came upon a man who had no feet. So I took his shoes. I mean, it's not like he really needed them, right?"

A Little Something Extra

All about using participial phrases here

Read a more detailed explanation of the whys and why-nots regarding dangling participles and dangling gerunds from The American Heritage Book of English Usage here

Oxymoron of the week: Useless grammar (Where would we be without grammar? Unable to communicate clearly, that's where!)

Word of the week: Dactylonomy (n) Counting on the fingers.

Yes, definitely back to basics this week in grammar and maths! Just think about it for a moment -- every finger has a knuckle, two joints and three bones (one joint and two bones for the thumb) and if you use all of them, on both hands, you can count up to 9,999! Better than taking your shoes off, isn't it?

The Boston College Magazine explains: "Dactylonomy--expressing numbers by the position of the fingers -- was known in classical antiquity, although its origins are obscure. The Greco-Roman author Plutarch, in his Lives, mentions the practice as being used in Persia in the first centuries of the Common Era, so the source of the system may lie in Iran. Indeed, Arab and Persian poets of the classical period could allude to someone's lack of generosity by saying that the person's hand made "ninety-three"--a closed fist, the sign of avarice." (Read more from this site about counting on your fingers: )

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Never-Ending Story

An Ape that wants to play Hamlet after being type-cast as King Kong, a talking anvil and that rottweiller ... Dr Morgenes is still caught in the nightmare that is the casting couch. Help him find a plot!  Just click on the Comments button at the end of the entry to add your contribution. If you have friends who fancy themselves as writers, invite them to contribute (just forward this newsletter in its entirety to them).

This week's Latin phrase should be framed, placed above your desk and consulted frequently when you're writing:

Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando?

[KWEES, KWEED, OO-bee KWEE-boos ohks-EE-lees, KOOR, kwohm-OH-doh, KWAHN-doh]

(Who, what, where, with what, why, how, when?)

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? Click here for these and more: 

Recommend this page to other writers by clicking the Recommend it! button below, then see what pages others are recommending here.

Kind regards,


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