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pill bottleThe overuse of participial phrases screams rookie author. The crime can send your manuscript directly to a publisher’s slush pile. Yikes!  So how do you know when you’ve gone from proper user to abuser?

First, we need to figure out what PPs are. Here is one: Shivering uncontrollably, Jason pulled the blanket around him. A participial phrase is used as an adjective phrase to modify a noun. In this case, Jason is the noun. Shivering uncontrollably modifies Jason.

So what’s wrong with that? The sentence is not grammatically incorrect. (We’ll talk improper use in a second.) But consider the following graph. Read it out loud.

Shivering, Jason pulled the blanket around him. Trying to get comfortable on the futon, he flipped onto his side. Regretting the coffee he’d had earlier, he willed his eyes shut. Counting sheep, he tried all the old tricks. Reaching for his bottle of Ambien, he finally knocked himself out.

All that “ing-ing” makes me cringe. How do you feel about it?

New authors often try to use participial phrases to avoid the overuse of starting a sentence with the character’s name or with “I” if the story is written in first person.

However, the “ing-ing” is a far greater sin. Not only does it hurt the ears, but it can leave the reader feeling a bit detached from the action.

The other trouble with participial phrases is that they are often misused.

First, PPs can suggest two different actions that couldn’t have possibly happened at the same time. Here’s an example: Running to the pharmacy, Jason filled his prescription. (Jason can’t possibly run to the pharmacy and fill the prescription at the same time.)

Additionally, we have the issue of dangling participles. Example: Hitching a ride, Jackie pulled over to the side of the road for the man. (The man was hitching the ride, not Jackie.) The best way to avoid this pitfall is to make sure that, if you do use a participial phrase, the correct noun follows or precedes it.

How does our writing sound once we kick the bad habits?

Try out the former “ing-ing” paragraph, now edited:

Jason shivered. He reached for the blanket and pulled it around him. The lumps in the futon felt like daggers in his back. He flipped on his side. No relief. Damn that midnight cappucino. He watched the sheep flying overhead. One, two, three… He followed the fourth as it pranced to the side table. The fuzzy fella had led him to his stash. He placed a pill on his tongue and waited for the Ambien to do its thing.

Not a participial phrase in sight. And Jason can finally sleep. Unfortunatley, I’m not sure what happened to Jackie.

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