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.
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.
But 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.
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