Are All Your Actions in Order?

plane and shavings

Assuming you’ve been following the advice I’ve been giving in this blog series, when you fact-checked your manuscript, or went on dangler patrol, or eliminated those commas in compound predicates, it was a little like planing a piece of wood, and misspelled brand names, danglers and misplaced commas fell to the floor from your manuscript, so to speak. The advice in this instalment, however, could lead to some sweeping up of manuscript shavings on your part only if you’re an author who tends to write a certain kind of sentence – namely, the type using participial phrases containing present participles (I’ll go into what that actually means in a moment). If you are one of those writers, you might just be making a couple of mistakes I often see in manuscripts and which I’m going to discuss here. 

Let’s nail down what I mean by participial phrases containing present participles – and no, I have no idea where this carpentry imagery is coming from, since woodwork is not my strong suit, evidenced by the fact that at school I couldn’t even produce a functioning dovetail joint. Nor was I any good at metalwork.

Now that I’ve somehow got on to the subject of making stuff out of wood and metal at school, and seeing as this is a blog about language, I think it’s only right I share my one abiding memory of metalwork lessons – conversations like the one that follows that came after my bewhiskered, Scottish metalwork teacher, whose name I forget, told me to do something, and I replied by saying ‘Alright.’ Scots Whiskers: ‘Stop saying “alright”, laddie. It’s not a proper word.’ Me: ‘Alright.’ Whiskers: ‘I said stopping saying alright!’ Me: ‘And I said alright. I’ll stop saying alright. Alright?’ Etc. Ad detention. Oh, the fun we had provoking the stick-in-the-mud teachers at our stick-in-the-mud school.

Fire axe pictureTo demonstrate what the phrases in question look like, I suggest we catch up with our drug-dealing anti-hero from the last blog, John Dudley, the so-called Snow King and the guy who, last time we met him, miraculously found a fire axe in Dunbad Prison, where he’s currently doing time, then proceeded to bury the axe in his cellmate’s head. Incidentally, you’re about to discover Dudley is still running free, if we can use that expression to talk about someone in prison. The reason the murder by Dudley of his cellmate didn’t lead to severe punitive measures being taken against him by the authorities is that I’m out of ideas for situations and characters with which to conjure up sentences illustrating grammar points, and I needed a guy I could rely on – a guy like John Dudley – to be going about his business as normal. Which adds up to a sad indictment of my imagination. So, without further ado, here come more slivers of action from the Snow King’s sordid life.

Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, the Snow King realised he’d be in deep trouble if the warders caught him with illicit booze again.

The Snow King sat on his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex.

In these example sentences, our participial phrases are Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex. There’s a present participle in each phrase: hiding, smoking and thinking. (I explained how we form present participles in the last blog; scroll down if you want to see the explanation.) Notice how this kind of participial phrase tells us about things happening at the same time as what’s going on in the main clause. While the Snow King is hiding the hooch, he’s realising the depth of the trouble he will find himself in should he get caught with the booze. While the Snow King sits on his bed, he’s smoking and thinking about his ex, who presumably left him for another fella. (I wouldn’t like to be in that guy’s shoes and anywhere near a wood-chopping tool if Dudley gets out of prison.) These sentences are all fine and dandy. The following one isn’t.

Striding across the exercise yard, John sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

John can’t be striding across the exercise yard, sitting down next to Big Phil and passing him coke at same time. What I’ve illustrated here with a sentence that exaggerates the error I’m trying to highlight is what goes wrong when writers try to indicate a sequence of events using participial phrases containing present participles. Unfortunately, sequencing isn’t something these phrases are capable of. Try to get them to show that an action takes place at a particular moment in a series of events and they’re all ‘Sorry, mate, that’s above my pay grade. No can do.’ Past-simple-tense verbs, on the other hand, positively lick the faces of sequences of actions that sentences like the one above fail to describe correctly.

John strode across the exercise yard, sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

Here’s another example of a sentence illustrating the problem I’m talking about, this time with three phrases with present participles stacked up at the end of it:

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler, tearing the centre spread into small rectangles, placing a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapping up the powder.

I don’t know how John got the keys to whatever office that is, by the way. I suppose it goes to show that if nothing else, the guy’s resourceful and cunning. Anyway, let’s look at what’s gone wrong here. The first two actions – John going through the drawers and finding the magazine – are nicely arranged in sequence, but then our present participles come along and ruin everything. John can’t be going through the drawers and finding the magazine at the same time as tearing the centre spread into rectangles and wrapping cocaine in those rectangles. Nor can he be tearing up the paper, placing the coke on each piece he creates and wrapping up the powder at the same time, since though the guy is resourceful, he’s not some kind of human octopus. Once again, using the past-simple tense would bring clarity where currently there is discord.

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.

I’m saying here that participial phrases containing present participles can only be used to describe actions that happen at the same time as the action in a main clause, but maybe there is a little bit of wiggle room. There certainly is according to Raymond Murphy, the author of English Grammar in Use. He says if one short action follows another short action, it’s okay to use a participial phrase containing a present participle, and he uses this as an example:

Taking a key out of his pocket, he opened the door.

I have to say I don’t like that sentence much. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but when I read that sentence I try to visualise someone taking a key out of his pocket and opening a door at one and the same time and I can’t, because that’s not possible. However, this is Mr Raymond Murphy talking here, so I have to sit up and listen – or prostrate myself in front of him and listen, because that’s the kind of respect he and his book deserve. English Grammar in Use is a legend within English teaching circles and contains probably the clearest explanations you’ll find of grammar rules formulated for people for whom English is not their first language. (I’m almost tempted to post another book-as-shrine photo, as I did for The Chicago Manual of Style, but the cover of my copy is too crinkled from use to serve as a model.)

Don’t confuse the participial phrases I’m talking about here with a similar construction, having + past participle, which is used specifically for sequencing. (If you need to know what past participles look like, scroll on down.) Here’s an example of having + past participle in action:

Having wrapped ten grams of coke, John made his way to the rec room to deliver five wraps to Tyneside Mac.

The opening phrase, Having wrapped ten grams of coke, is doing good work and indicating that an action happened before the action in the main clause – John going to the rec room. Nice one, having + past participle!

Now to the subject of dangling present participles at the ends of sentences, which I said I’d cover in this instalment. Let’s remind ourselves what danglers are. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – in the case we’re going to talk about, a participial phrase containing a present participle – and the noun it’s supposed to modify. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to. Take a gander at this: 

John looked at the nudie picture, lying on his bed.

This sentence is a little ambiguous, no? It’s not clear whether the intention was to say John is lying on his bed and looking at the nudie picture, or John is looking at the nudie picture that is lying on his bed. Since it was I who wrote the sentence, I can exclusively reveal to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I was imagining myself as an author who meant to say the picture was on the bed. That means lying on his bed is dangling, because it’s not attaching properly to the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to, the nudie picture, and sort of attaching to John instead, but not quite really doing that either. (Maybe it should be defined as a hesitant and indecisive dangling participle.) There’s a simple fix:

John looked at the nudie picture lying on his bed.

If my intention had been to say John was lying on his bed and looking at the picture, which would presumably be on the wall in that case, a good way to rework the sentence would have been:

Lying on his bed, John looked at the nudie picture.

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Check back over your work and establish whether you’re the type of writer who uses participial phrases containing present participles. 

2. If you are, look out for two things. First, make sure you haven’t used participial phrases with present participles to indicate events happening in sequence. Second, make sure the phrases don’t dangle.

3. Rewrite any sentences that have gone wrong.

Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a carrier pigeon, Morse Code and a torch, etc.

 

9 thoughts on “Are All Your Actions in Order?

  1. Never mind a shrine to Ray. I’m setting up a Trower altar, complete with joss stick, tea light and a well-thumbed copy of Fowler’s. And a dead chicken, of course.

    Another great article. Put me down for a signed copy of the book.

  2. Well, if people are going to start worshipping me, maybe I’d be in with a chance if I went for that top religious job that’s going to be vacant soon. Not sure the dead chicken bit will play well, though, at the interview.

  3. D'Ann Hamilton

    Just finished reading the 6 articles. Excellent! I, too, will buy a copy of this grammar bible when you publish it. But not to use as a source for fuel.

  4. Pingback: Don’t dangle your participle in front of me | J. Keller Ford ~ Young Adult Fantasy Author

  5. Thanks for this series. I just read through all the posts. I read a sample of a traditionally published book yesterday that was full of dangling participles and out-of-order actions. It really bothered me.

    Anyway, for this:
    “John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.”

    Should this be “and wrapped up the powder” or “and then wrapped up the powder”?

    I read some advice the other day that cautioned against using “and” at the end of a series of actions– that “then” or “and then” works better. Does using “and” imply that the last two actions are happening at the same time?

    I use and / and then / then interchangeably and I’m not sure what I need to edit.

    1. Hi,

      Glad you’re finding the blogs useful. Once you switch that dangling-participle detector on, you do see danglers all over the place, as you say.

      Interesting question your one about whether to use “and” or “and then.” I’ve come across the advice you mention too; I believe it was in a book called The Language of Fiction, by Brian Shawver. I don’t think he was actually giving that advice himself but noting that it’s out there. Anyway, strictly speaking, I suppose it’s true that if you write, say, “John got up, went to the kitchen and made coffee,” you’re not giving a sequence of events. You could interpret that sentence to mean that he did those three things, but not in any particular order. However, I don’t think anyone could read a sentence like the one I’ve used as an example and not see it as a sequence of consecutive actions that occur in the order they’re given in the sentence. So I really don’t think it’s necessary to write “and then” for the reason you give, though you might want to mix “and” and “and then” in order to avoid establishing an over-repetitious sentence pattern in your novel.

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