How to avoid a misused present participle

octopuspicWhat is a misused present participle? I’m so glad you asked. First, the present participle verb form is simply a verb with “ing” on the end, indicating continuous action.

• “I was writing.” 
• “The man was running.”
• “My friend and I were chatting.”

Those are all examples of present participles, and in those simple sentences, the actions continued to take place. The writing, running, and chatting were ongoing.

But for some reason, writers like to misuse these present participle verb forms and try to get them to mean something they don’t really mean. The sentences often go something like this:

• “Writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.” (Really? You’re able to write while getting up and making a cup of coffee? No? Then try this: “After writing in my journal, I got up and made myself a cup of coffee.”)
• “Closing the door, I walked to the mailbox and fetched a package.” (“After closing the door,” methinks, is what is meant here. Unless the speaker has really, really long arms.)

• “Taking a sip of tea, I told my husband what I wanted for my birthday.” (Excuse me while I mop up the tea dribbling down the front of my shirt, which would surely be the case if I were to tell my husband anything “while” I was taking a sip of tea.)

If you train yourself to think of those “ing” verb forms as the continuing actions they are, you can see the problems immediately. You’ll also note that I like to mentally insert the word “while” before the present participle.

My favorite example of a misused present participle—several of them, actually—comes from a short story by an author I know well—me. I initially wrote this:

“Drying my hands on the dish towel and untying my apron, I gathered my pocketbook and reached for my old blue hat.” The woman who did all that would have to have been part octopus, wouldn’t she? I was so happy that I learned about misused present participles before I ever published such a dreadful sentence.

If you’re interested in learning more about this particular grammar issue, I recommend a fine blog post by Jordan McCollum, which helped me learn to avoid misusing present participles. Maybe it will help you as well!

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