Tag Archives: gerunds

How Gerunds can be Action’s Kryptonite #amwriting

Today’s post focuses on word choice. I’ve just finished reading a mystery novel, and while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the editor in my soul says I can’t recommend it. Therefore, I will not name the book or the author.

transitive verbThis novel was meticulously self-edited. I could see it was run through the author’s writer’s group many times, and the major flaws were ironed out. There were few typos, and the formatting was done well.

Self-editing is a struggle. The eye is biased when it comes to the structural flaws of our own work. This is why the smart author runs things past their writing group. The problem I see most often is that writing group members are not usually editors. They are acquainted with the basics of grammar but aren’t familiar with some advanced functions. They may have been taught grammar in school but have forgotten some as they had no use for it until they began writing.

And some never understood it because of the way it was presented in the first place. When something is boring, we don’t pay attention.

chicago guide to grammarLet’s be real—style and grammar guides are tedious and hard to understand. We may own them but we hate to crack them open. Trust me, researching grammar gets easier and more interesting as you advance in writing craft.

Unfortunately, the novel I wanted to enjoy was ruined by the opening line of the first paragraph on page one. That flaw interested me, so the editor in my head continued reading, analyzing why such a promising book failed.

Positives: The characters were engaging, and the plot was an original, well-conceived premise. The mystery was intriguing, and the setting was shown well.

Negatives: The author’s penchant for beginning sentences with gerunds – “ing” words – and peppering them throughout the narrative soured me on what could have been a strong novel. The opening paragraph ran similarly to this 29-word sample, with gerunds at the front of three sentences in a row:

Moving along quickly, we hurried through the store. Huddling behind the shelves, we waited until Mason had passed. Moving quickly again, we made it safely out the door.

The rest of the book was written in that style.

If I had been in her writing group, I would have suggested (gently) that she either move the gerunds to the final clause of each sentence or eliminate them. I know it’s frustrating to hear an editor suggest you completely reword prose you have already shaped and reshaped. But trust me, a reader will appreciate it.

We hurried through the store, huddling behind the shelves until Mason had passed, then slipped out the door.

Ten words were removed from the first example, but the scene’s intention isn’t altered.

This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

  1. Moving the verbs to the front of the sentence makes it stronger.
  2. Nouns are inherently inert but feel active when followed by verbs.

Words ending in “ing” fall into the family of gerunds. They are often used as verbs that have been turned into nouns, such as running and dancing. They are usually intransitive verbs (but sometimes they are transitive) and are necessary for good writing. But used improperly and too freely, gerunds are action’s kryptonite. (Edited 11-23-2022 for clarity.)

We followed the river, running alongside it until we could go no farther.

5 kinds of words

Writers who use gerunds too freely mean well. After all, a gerund began life as a verb but underwent an identity change, becoming a noun by adding the “ing” suffix.

Authors who lead sentences off with them are trying to get their prose moving.

So now we know a new truth: when we lead off our sentences with “ing” words, we are opening with a verb that wants to be a noun and behaves like one. This word choice separates the reader from the action, so while a gerund is a verb form, it is a word with a supporting role.

The abundance of gerunds we put into the first draft are an aspect of passive phrasing, the mental shorthand we use to first tell the story.

In most first drafts, the passive phrasing is a code. The author’s “subconscious writer” embeds signals in the first draft. It tells the author that the characters are transitioning from one scene to the next. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. This change is something the reader must know.

toolsIn this regard, gerunds and other passive code words are the author’s first draft-multi-tool. They are a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters that serves many purposes and conveys multiple mental images to the author.

At some point, we will finish the first draft, giving our novel a finite ending. When we begin revising that first draft, gerunds and passive phrasing, these code words and clues we left ourselves, will tell us what we must expand on. They show us the scene, and we rewrite it so the reader can see it too.


Filed under writing

#amwriting: verbs, gerunds, and infinitives

Hamlet Poster Benedict CumberbatchA dear friend and I have been discussing gerunds. “Gerund” is a term (from our roots in Latin grammar) for a verb form that functions as a noun. Gerunds are nouns formed from verbs and they describe actions.

The gerund in English is usually identified by the addition of the three letters “ing” added at the end of an infinitive. For example:

  • “to be” is changed to “being”
  • “to eat” is changed to “eating”

So what is an infinitive? Basically, an infinitive verb is a verb with the word “to” in front of it:

  • to be
  • to have
  • to hold
  • to walk
  • to dream
  • to sleep

Without the word “to,” each of the above words is just a base verb. They are finite, limited. They are the action, end of story. When you add the word “to” in front of the action it is no longer finite—it becomes unlimited, or infinite: an infinitive. This lack of boundaries creates a passive voice when telling a story, and for some narratives it is appropriate.

However, we want our work to have an active voice if we are writing modern genre fiction, so we must do our best to avoid the overuse of infinitives.

When we first begin sharing our work in writers’ groups, we are shown instances of where the use of infinitives creates a passive narrative, separating the reader from the action. We choose to combat that by eliminating as many instances of these words as we can, and in some places, changing them into a more active form: the gerund.

A side bit of trivia: in modern speech, expressions such as “can’t stand,” “couldn’t help,” and “it’s no use” are frequently followed by gerunds:

  • I can’t stand running in place.
  • It’s no use harping at me; I won’t change my mind.

Traditionally, the gerund has four forms: two for the active voice and two for the passive. Consider the word “love,” a word that can either be a thing (a noun) or an action (a verb). For this exercise we are looking at the verb form:


You will note that one form is referred to as “Perfect” and you are wondering how this relates to our gerund. The word perfect literally means “made complete” or “completely done.” Thus, the three perfect tenses in English are the three verb tenses which show action already completed.

  • Present Perfect: I have seen it. (This is done. Finished. End of story).
  • Past Perfect: I had seen it. (It happened in the past. It’s done, so get over it.)
  • Future Perfect: I will have seen it. (Okay, it’s not done yet, but when it is, I will be the one to report that it is finished).

Consequently, having loved indicates that the act of loving is completed.

I mentioned that we sometimes avoid using a passive voice, by changing infinitives to gerunds.  But when should we NOT use a gerund? This just came up in my own work, prompting this bit of research:

One of my personal first-draft sins is the infamous “subject-less gerund-participial clause that is left hanging in space without an understood subject (this is known as the dangling participle). It happens to me most often when I begin a sentence with a gerund:

Being desperately poor, chocolate was scarce, as was milk.

In MY mind, as the writer, the word “being” in the above sentence relates to my character’s poverty. But a reader might stop and say “Huh? What?” To clarify that, I should say, The family was desperately poor. Chocolate was scarce, as was milk.”

GerundsThis tendency to inadvertently create confusion is why I try not to start a sentence with a gerund, unless it is the only way to express that thought and can be done in a clear, unambiguous fashion.

Also, we should not use gerunds with infinitives (to be, to do, etc.) UNLESS the word “to” is being used as a preposition. Remember this quick trick: if you can put the pronoun “it” after the word “to” and form a meaningful sentence, then the word “to” in that instance is a preposition.

For example:

  • to look forward to (it)
  • to be accustomed to (it)
  • to get around to (it)
  • to be used to (it)

It is important to recognize that the word “to” is a preposition in these cases because it must be followed by a gerund. It is not part of the infinitive form of the verb. (Prepositions may be defined as any word or group of words that relates a noun or a pronoun to another word in the sentence.)

An excellent page on this subject can be found at the University of Victoria’s ELC Study Zone: Gerunds. A quote from this page regarding gerunds and prepositions:

“But… only gerunds can be the object of a preposition.

“We are talking about writing in English.” (end quote)

I graduated from high school, but my formal education was somewhat lacking in this area. Either I was staring out the window when the teachers were talking about proper use of gerunds, or it wasn’t a subject we discussed–I don’t know. But somehow I didn’t pick up on it then.

Forty years on, I’ve formed certain writing habits and often use gerunds incorrectly in my first, second and even third drafts, which leads to confusing prose. The words made perfect sense when I wrote them, and I can’t catch them all when I am making revisions.

This is why a sharp beta reader and a good line-editor are lifesavers.


Filed under Self Publishing, writing

The road to perdition

I just attempted to read a book.  I say ‘attempted.’ It may have been based on an intriguing idea, and there might have been wonderful characters, but I wouldn’t know, because after three pages of reading, I had to set that travesty aside. Every sentence began with a GERUND.

Gerunds, © Connie J. Jasperson 2014

Now I know how this happens.  New authors who spend a lot of time in writing forums and writing groups, and who have had their work trashed by the group guru as being passive might see using gerunds as a way to generate action in their narrative.

dachshund.04But Mama, what’s a gerund?  Is it like a dachshund?

No dear, gerunds are not like dachshunds, although both are insidious minions of evil that manage to work their way into … where was I? Oh yes, gerunds.



  1. a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing, e.g., asking in do you mind my asking you

SO a gerund is a verb is a noun that acts like a verb that acts like a noun.

Now that I have cleared that up, what is it really?  A gerund is not like a normal noun because a gerund can take a direct object (just like a verb can).

Basically, they are ING words—DOING words that when you combine them with possessive words such as his, my, him and their, can become nouns.

Writing – He is writing.  (it’s a verb)  I like his writing. (it’s a noun)

Running – The dogs were running. (verb)   The child’s running through the house aggravated me. (noun)

BUT wait—gerunds can also be participles?–oh, those cross-dressing fiends!

Participle phrases always function as adjectives, adding description to the sentence without resorting to that most heinous of writing-group crimes, the dreaded ‘ly’ words ( Satan, get thee away from me):

The child running across the lawn hopes you have brought him a present.

Running across the lawn modifies the noun child.

I could get really technical here and talk infinitives and prepositions–but we just want to get to the writing do-and-don’t part.  Do use them when they are necessary, and  don’t use too many. Remember it’s all about balance. Your narrative is like a ship and words are ballast–get too much on one side and suddenly your ship is at the bottom of Lake Erie.

Gerund phrases and present participle phrases are easy to confuse because they both begin with an ing word. The difference is that a gerund phrase will always function as a noun while a present participle phrase describes another word in the sentence.

SO how are ING words properly used when writing narrative? In my opinion, they should only rarely be used to begin phrases. Confusion abounds when we are too free with them, as they ruin the flow of the narrative for the casual reader.

When you are writing the first draft, none of this matters, because all that matters at that point is getting the story out of your head and onto the paper. HOWEVER, when you are working on the second draft of your manuscript, keep this in mind:

  • Adding excessive words to your narrative will result in a passive narrative. Using gerunds to begin your phrases will not turn a passive voice into an active voice. Instead, you must trim out the unnecessary words, because using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps them from becoming too complicated or wordy.

Relying on gerunds to create active phrases and avoid accusations of the dreaded passive writing is taking the road to perdition my friends, because just like any other grammatical crutch,  gerunds are the devil when used improperly.


 And on a different note–Last Monday I posted on My Writing Process — and today, Stephen Swartz and Shaun Allan have posted their blogs detailing their own writing processes:

Stephen Swartz can be found at Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire

Shaun Allan can be found at Flip and Catch


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