Friday, June 26, 2020

Pesky Participles - #AmEditing #WritingCraft #Grammar

When I’m reading, editing or critiquing others’ work, improperly deployed participles are a pet peeve. I’m utterly incapable of ignoring them. Other readers notice comma confusions, tangled tenses, or missing modifiers. They might be especially sensitive to excessive alliteration. I can sail past a lot of nits without noticing, but an incorrectly constructed participle modifier will jump out at me like raincoat-clad pervert from behind a tree.

I know grammatical terms make a lot of people wince, so let me give you some examples from recent reads:

a) No longer aware of her physical surroundings, uncaring of the others watching them, he had become her world.

b) Nearly blinded, instinctively, Callie's hand went for the gun in her purse.

c) Measuring the length of his dick still waiting to ravage her burning cunt, Nina's eyes flew open.

Here are a few simpler, synthetic examples:

d) Panting with excitement, her heart pounded like a bass drum in her chest.

e) Entering the room unannounced, Joel’s attention flew to the naked woman sprawled on the couch.

f) Silenced by embarrassment, my cheeks flushed bright red.

I know some of you are probably thinking: What’s the problem? These are perfectly fine sentences. The meaning is crystal clear.

I beg to differ. The author’s intent is clear in most cases. However, if you apply the conventional rules of English to interpreting these sentences, you end up drawing some strange, even nonsensical conclusions. Silent cheeks? A blinded hand?

The complexities of English grammatical structures are the bane of many. There are dozens of different ways to express the same idea. A single sentence may consist of many clauses as well as modifying phrases.

In the face of this complexity, we fall back on the principle of proximity. When you have a modifier, that is, a phrase that describes some entity in the main clause of the sentence, we assume that the modifier is describing the subject of the main clause, which normally follows right after the modifier.

If the modifier is a participle (that is, a verb turned into an adjective by adding “ing” or “ed”), it is assumed that the implied subject of this verb is the subject of the following clause.

Here’s the crux of the issue in the ungrammatical sentences above. If we follow this convention in our interpretation, the results are silly or confusing.

In a), both the adjective (“no longer aware”) and participle (“uncaring”) modifiers clearly have a female subject. Yet the subject of the main clause is “he” - not the person who’s “uncaring”.

In b) the conventional rules would indicate that Callie’s hand was blinded.

Example c) is a bit more nuanced, since Nina’s eyes might well be what she used to estimate the length of her partner’s cock. More likely though, the true subject of “measuring” is Nina herself – not her eyes as suggested by the interpretation rules.

The three synthetic examples make the problem more obvious. In each case, the real subject is a person, while the implied subject is a part or aspect of the person.

Now at this point, you might be thinking: who cares?

Well, that’s your right. However, when I encounter this sort of ungrammatical construction, even in an otherwise well-written story, I cringe. Furthermore, my opinion of the author’s skill declines a bit. Perhaps that’s not fair, but I expect serious authors to be conscious of the rules of the language – implicitly if not explicitly.

Elitist? Maybe. However, I can’t help my reactions. I suspect I’m not the only reader who feels this way.

So – assuming you’re editing your tale, and notice one of these errors – what can you do about it?

There are three basic solutions:

1) Change the subject in the independent clause to match the modifier;

2) Expand the modifier into a clause that explicitly specifies a subject (which can then be different from the independent clause);

3) Make the modifying clause into a separate sentence.

Let’s look at example (b) and apply each of these solutions.

Solution 1: Nearly blinded, Callie instinctively reached for the gun in her purse.

Solution 2: As the flash nearly blinded her, Callie's hand instinctively went for the gun in her purse.

Solution 3: The flash nearly blinded her. Instinctively, Callie’s hand went for the gun in her purse.

The best revision depends on stylistic concerns, as well as on the specific sentence. For example (a), I think the sentence should be split, since the subject of the modifiers and of the main clause are totally different.

She was no longer aware of her physical surroundings, uncaring of the others watching them. He had become her world.

In addition to fixing the grammar problem, this revision (I feel) increases the impact of the sentences.

If you’re willing to admit that this sort of construction is a problem, how can you improve your ability to notice your own errors?

Alas, we’re all somewhat blind to our own faults. You can begin, though, by becoming more conscious of your choices when framing a sentence. Should you use a modifying phrase at the start of a sentence? A dependent clause? Would your ideas be better expressed by splitting the thought into two sentences?

Normally people use modifying phrases like this to convey a relationship. When you use a participle, you are implying a temporal relationship. A present participle (“ing”) indicates two concurrent actions. For instance, Joel noticed the naked woman on the couch at the same time as he entered the room. A past participle (“ed”, or “en” for some verbs) suggests sequential actions. A flash blinded Callie, then she instinctively reached for her gun.

Be sure that this implied temporal relationship makes sense, and is what you really want to convey.

You probably should not try to think about this sort of issue when you’re writing your first draft, or you’ll get bogged down. However sentence structure alternatives should be one of your considerations when you’re self-editing.

Of course, the best approach may be to have someone else read and critique your stories, helping to shine light on your blind spots. You can offer the same service to someone else, since their weaknesses are likely to differ from yours.


Fiona McGier said...

Phew! Color me majorly-relieved that none of the examples you used were from a book of mine! I've taught grammar for many years, and even so, I've been learning more about writing from every editor who has ever gone through my books. So yes, we are usually blind to our own foibles.

Lisabet Sarai said...

We all have our issues, as well as our pet peeves. For some reason, this is one type of error that grabs my attention every time.

And I've never noticed it in one of your books...!

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