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Bewildering Stories

The Grammar Corner

Fun with Present Participles

The gist of this article is that present participles can be useful, but contributors need to be careful with them. Many submissions are so loaded with -ing’s that they sink of their own weight. To the author, that may be careful, “literary” writing; to the reader, it’s like chomping on roast duck and getting a mouthful of buckshot.

Now, a kind of entrance exam: what are “writing,” “chomping” and “getting” in the previous sentence? They are not present participles. What are they?

Our contributors very often trot out a part of speech I’ve never seen so many of before: participles.

“Participles?” I hear in the distance. “What’s that? And why should I care?”

Good questions. If you can read this, you already know what participles are and what they do. You may not be able to point to one and identify it by name, but for everyday use you don’t need to. You don’t have to be able to name all the parts of a car to get a driver’s license. It’s the same with your own language: you know by experience how it works. And yet if we talk about how a car works, we need to be able to name at least some of its parts. And the same is true if we’re going to talk about language.

English has two kinds of participles: present and past. It’s hard to think of less descriptive names for them. Participles may have tenses in other languages, but they don’t in English. The reason is simple: participles are part of a verb — as their name indicates — not a complete verb. Let’s take some for a spin.

A few definitions, all of which a native speaker of English recognizes by experience alone:

Stop!” The subject is implied: “you.” In English it can be added for emphasis: “You stop that right now!”
The tense is the present. The voice is active. The mood is imperative (a command).

“He might have been being shown the garden when we telephoned.” Yep, that’s an example of a five-word verb. It’s faintly ridiculous, but it is grammatically possible. The tense is the non-present, the voice is passive, and the mood is indicative.

Now let’s have some fun with our “Tom Swiftie.” Let’s repeat the example:

“Ouch,” said Tom, swiftly, stubbing his toe on a doormat.

“Hold on,” you may object, “not so swiftly there. Tom had to stub his toe before he said ‘Ouch’. Or maybe we want to say that stubbing his toe is the cause of his saying ‘Ouch’.”

Okay, we can do that:

“Ouch,” said Tom swiftly, having stubbed his toe on a doormat.

“Having” is the present participle of “to have.” Combining it with “stubbed,” a past participle, makes a complex participle. Why isn’t it a present perfect participle? Slap with wet fish: participles have no tenses!

Let’s take an example that can mean two different things:

“Having gone to town, they decided to see a movie.”

Do people actually write things like that? Honestly, you would be amazed... But what do they mean? It depends on your point of view and what you’re used to, I suppose.

A French-speaking reader would automatically assume it means: “Because they had gone to town, they decided to see a movie.” It’s very systematic: the complex participle states the cause, the main verb states the effect. The interpretation may not make much sense, but that’s the rule.

For the English-speaking reader, the sentence is ambiguous. You can argue that “having gone” doesn’t necessarily state a cause; it might only tell what happened first. The sentence could imply: “First they went to town and then, incidentally, they decided to see a movie.” That’s one of the reasons we normally avoid complex participles in English.

More likely we’d prefer something simpler: “They went to town and decided to see a movie.” In English the conjunction “and” can mean “and then” or “and therefore.”

The sentence is still ambiguous; we’re not sure whether “and” is talking about time or about cause and effect, but we shrug and say it doesn’t matter much in this case. Our Gallic friends would throw up their hands in despair: “These Anglo-Saxons! Always talking — how do you say — out of both sides of their mouth.”

Here’s a different example, about Anastasie, who happens to be a kitty-cat:

“Having lived in the forest all her life, Anastasie didn’t know about the outside world.”

The sentence is okay, but it sounds stilted. We might prefer to say, “Anastasie had lived in the forest all her life and didn’t know about the outside world.” In this case we can safely infer that “and” means “and therefore.”

You can say it that way in French, too, but it won’t make sense. The sentence is incoherent; it gives two unrelated bits of information:

  1. Anastasie didn’t know about the outside world
  2. before that she had lived in the forest all her life.

In English we can imply there’s a connection; in French we have to say what it is.

You don’t have to use complex participles:

You just have to make sure that the tenses show that the cause precedes the effect. That works fine, especially if you enjoy conjugating verbs and juggling tenses.

The gist is: by having minded (a complex gerund) your participles you will have been having (the future ridiculous tense) even more fun than usual.

Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb


Responses welcome!

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