Gerunds Be Gone

Nancy J. Cohen

What’s wrong with this sentence: “Shutting off the ignition, she threw her keys into her purse and emerged into the bright sunshine.”

How can you throw your keys into a purse when you are using them to shut off the ignition?

This type of “ing” phrase is called a gerund. I never knew what it was until a critique partner pointed out that I was using them liberally. And I hate to say it, but this was several years into my published works. Even now, I’m not sure this is the correct grammatical term.

I learned my lesson, and as I’m now going through my backlist mystery titles making updates and tightening sentence structure, I am finding more phrasing like the one above.

Beware these illogical phrases in your own work. Here are some examples:

NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior.
YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior.

NO: Taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.
YES: After taking a sip of orange juice, she put her glass down and opened the newspaper.

NO: Racing down the street, she came to a halt when the light turned red.
YES: She raced down the street, coming to a halt when the light turned red.

NO: Shaking the lady’s hand, she stepped back to admire her cobalt dress.
YES: After exchanging a handshake, she stepped back to admire the other woman’s cobalt dress.

It’s okay to use an “ing” phrase in thoughts. For example, you can say, “Wishing she could change the events of the past few hours, she sped down the road.

What is your grammatical Achilles Heel?

38 thoughts on “Gerunds Be Gone

  1. Editors, it turns out, do not like to see the same words used over and over. They highlight them, and ask you to change them. Because I write in the first person, I started a lot of sentences with ‘I’.

    In your four examples, two corrections start with ‘She’ (equivalent to I), and the other two start with ‘after’. If the paragraph is showing action, there tends to be quite a few ‘she’ and ‘I’. How to get around this?

    That’s when the gerunds come into play, pesky little non-solutions that they are.

    I’m not sure I agree with the editors. I tend to not read pronouns the same way I don’t read ‘said’.

  2. My name is Tom, and I was a gerund addict. I went cold turkey and check every manuscript I critique/edit for these pesky critters. I never remember their name, so thanks for reminding me!

  3. Oh gods yes! I fight this battle every day as a news editor. Why, why WHY do writers (especially reporters) think it’s somehow better to write, “He will be going to the conference” instead of “He will go to the conference?” But they do. With some of the staff I work with, to whom I have mentioned this countless times, I do a search for “ing,” and cut half a dozen or more out of every story. What’s wrong with a nice, strong verb instead if a weak gerund that puts the emphasis on the verb “to be?”

    • Similarly, “am going” is one of those phrases that can be stronger. Also ones such as this: “As he was walking down the hall” sounds better “As he strode down the hall.”

    • Strode creates a better picture in my mind. Strode implies strength and purpose. So, help me understand how “was walking down” is better. *genuinely interested*

    • Wren is exactly right. The rule is this: generic verbs like “walk,” “threw,” “ran,” etc., draw adverbs the way flies are drawn to offal. Doing the slightly harder job of finding and using the most accurate verb = no need for an adverb.

  4. The problem is not with grammar but with the laws of physics. So long as the actions can be simultaneous, there’s nothing wrong a gerund phrase once in a while for variety’s sake.

  5. I read a novel on Wattpad recently who took the idea of short succinct sentences free of gerunds a bit to seriously. It was like reading a fourth grader’s “What I Did Over Summer Break” essay.

    I walked into the room. It was loud with music. I saw my friend talking to my ex. She laughed. I wasn’t happy.

    The whole manuscript was like this. It infuriated me. Believe it or not, I kept feeling the lack of description and sentence variation as a weight tied to the story’s ankle.

    But the physics, one must not defy the physics.

    • Those passages definitely need more variety, especially in physical gut reactions and showing, not telling. How would I rewrite this?

      My steps faltered as I entered the room, where pounding music vibrated through my bones. I halted, scanning the clusters of people engaged in conversation. My gaze caught on Alicia who stood talking to my ex. She laughed at something he said, and my gut clenched. Five years ago, that had been me….

  6. Good stuff, Nancy! This is the topic of a chapter of my writing guide, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION. The chapter is called, “Dangling Participles, Misplaced Modifiers, and Other Awkward Constructions”. You give some excellent examples here! 🙂

  7. Gerunds or “ing” verbs are perfect for expressing an action that is taking place when something else happens, for example, “She was vacuuming the living room when the doorbell rang.”

    • As long as the something else isn’t physically impossible. I have to admit, I have a bad habit of gerunding all over my writing. My thought was that the punctuation denoted a sequential action, but I realize reading this that is not the case.

  8. This is probably more than anyone wants to know about “ing” grammar terms and properties, but the following definitions and examples help me fix confusing sentences:

    “Ing” words are not all gerunds. Some are participles, others are verbs.

    A gerund is a verbal noun. A participle is a verbal adjective. An “ing” verb denotes continuous action.

    A gerund assumes the grammatical properties of a noun:

    Her singing annoyed me = “singing” is used as the noun subject of the verb “annoyed.”

    A participle assumes the grammatical properties of an adjective:

    The singing girl annoyed me = “singing” acts as an adjective that modifies “girl.”

    An “ing” verb construction

    In the sentence, “He will be going to the conference,” the phrase “will be going” is a verb, a verb phrase that denotes future continuous action. Same grammatical property for the sentence, “He is going to the conference,” except the action is continuous present.

    • Nancy, one last explanation and I promise to go off into a dungeon and diagram sentences by myself.

      The confusion over gerunds versus participles versus “ing” verbs, is common because we are conditioned to think of the meaning of an “ing” word as a verb, an action—rather than as a part of speech with a function devoid of its dictionary meaning.

      In high school, a nun pounded the distinctions into us over and over, with homework exercises, in which we dissected sentences that contained the same “ing” word in grammatical variations to figure out the part of speech for each sentence variation. The easiest way to do this is to line up the ing word with a word easily slotted into a specific role of noun, adjective, or verb.

      For example:

      Her speech annoyed me. (“Speech” is a noun.)
      Her singing annoyed me. (“Singing” is a verbal noun/a gerund.)

      The silly girl annoyed me. (“Silly” is an adjective.)
      The singing girl annoyed me. (“Singing” is an adjective/a verbal adjective AKA participle.)

      The girl sings the National Anthem. (“Sings” is a verb.)
      The girl is singing the National Anthem. (“Is singing” is a verb/a continuous action verb.)
      In both sentences, the girl performs an action (singing) in the present tense. The difference is that in the second sentence, she is in the process of performing the action. In the first sentence, she might not be doing so at the moment.

  9. To the Truant Librarian…you took the words right out of my mouth, i.e., not all “ing” words are gerunds. Thank you for saving me the time.

    Now, to what I call “ING” sentences, boy, did I ever make this mistake in my first draft of my first novel…and I thought I was a grammar Nazi! My reason for using them was to vary my sentence structures, but I often used “ING” words incorrectly. Another grammar Nazi (a former editor with Penguin) corrected me, and I’ll be forever grateful.

    Many, many authors make this mistake – I’ve seen some doozies in books published by the major publishers, and it makes me want to scream.

    As for when to use a continuous past (e.g., was going) rather than the simple past (e.g., went…Constance Hale, BTW, says to avoid the verb “to go”), the general rule for writers is to use the simple past – it tends to be stronger and more active. But as with any rule the continuous past is sometimes necessary (e.g., when she came into the room, John was reading a book) and sometimes preferable, e.g., for rhythmic reasons, to create a sense of relaxation or languorousness, etc.

    The challenge for us all is to recognize the effect you want to create in the mind of the reader, and then to use the tools for the job, without overusing any particular tool or technique.

  10. I see this so often in manuscripts that I edit for clients that I’ve nicknamed it “The SOS Syndrome: Simultaneous or Sequential?” I’ll call the questionable passage to their attention and ask them to visualize it, as written, to see if the actions can really be done simultaneously or if the actions are a sequence of events. One can pull on a coat as they rise from a bed or sofa, but it’s pretty hard to rise from a seated position as they walk towards the door.

  11. I don’t know WHAT you’re talking about. Throwing the keys into the whatever, she did that thing. The gerund phrase, throwing the keys into the whatever, modifies she. SHE is the noun of the setnence, did is the verb, and thing is the direct object of the verb.

    Now, I do see a lot of errors in this regard: “As a journalist, a quite a few light aircraft narrowly miss that tree at the end of the runway.”

    By implication, the writer is a journalist, and he or she is speaking as one. The light aircraft sentence does not modify the journalist.

    As a journalist, quite a few light aircraft narrowly miss that tree at the end of the runway. You’ll hear this kind of faulty construction night after night on the news. Presumably, it means something like, “Because I am a journalist, I have seen, (or I know) that many light air craft miss that tree at the end of the drive. As I say, most of the time you hear this faulty construction in speech, often in writing.

    Thank you.

  12. I’m not sure I get your point, Jim? I understand the journalist part. But in my sentence, she cannot turn off the ignition and throw the keys in her purse at the same time.

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