Handle with Care: “-ing” Modifiers
Verbal phrases like “noting the snake’s distinctive red on yellow” or “knifing through the water” can perform astonishing feats in the dramatization of our stories or, if we aren’t careful, can stand out like spinach on the teeth of our syntax and mark us as writers who have not mastered our craft.
The -ing verb form goes by several names. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls it an infinite verb and warns against its inappropriate use in introductory phrases (p 99). It is also known as a verbal—a verb form that does not function as a verb. It is a present participle which, when combined with a “to be” verb, makes our continuous tenses: Jack is/was/will be/had been gawking at the woman in the mismatched bikini. When used alone—It was a daunting task—it functions as an adjective. When used as a noun—Singing is good for the lungs—it is a gerund.
Aside from its use in the continuous tenses, or as an adjective, or as a gerund, the –ing verbal placed at the head of a phrase—looking forward to his supper—functions as a modifier that elaborates a noun (restrictive modifier, Virginia Tufte, p. 70) or elaborates the entire base clause (unrestricted modifier, Tufte, p. 70).
The Restrictive -ing Modifer
He held the bills up to the late-afternoon light pouring through the plate glass, and she saw his eyes moving left to right and right to left, and she didn’t care if Farley said they’re too dumb to match up strips and watermarks and all that Farley Ramsdale goddamn bullshit! … Three minutes later Farley picked her up sprinting across the street against a red light, and he was amazed that Olive Oyl could move that fast, given her emaciated condition. (Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Station, p. 58)
The dramatization of this scene is amplified by Wambaugh’s use of the restrictive modifiers: pouring through the plate glass, moving left to right and right to left, and sprinting up the street against a red light.
The opposite effect occurs in sentences in which restrictive –ing modifiers are used like this:
The girl sitting on the bench ate Benjamin’s sandwich.
The sentence is grammatically correct. But the use of the -ing phrase in this manner tends to de-dramatize, to lessen directness, to lessen vivacity.
This sentence rewritten with verbs, The girl sat on the bench and ate Benjamin’s sandwich, is more direct, more active, and less author intrusive.
A rule of thumb is that if a restrictive –ing modifier can be changed to a verb, we should consider changing it.
When an –ing restrictive modifier is used to best effect, we cannot change the -ing modifier to a verb and retain the sentence’s coherence. For instance:
The girl sitting on the bench and eating Benjamin’s sandwich won the bet.
The restrictive –ing modifiers describe what the girl is doing—sitting and eating—and therefore to which girl the speaker is referring. The predicate, won the bet, conveys an action apart from her sitting and eating. In this sentence, the –ing’s cannot be changed to verbs. Note too, that in Wambaugh’s sentences, the restrictive–ing modifiers could not be changed to verbs.
The Unrestricted -ing Modifier
One must also take care when using unrestricted –ing modifiers, those that modify the base clause. It’s imperative the main verb be an action of such duration that it allows the action of the modifying verbal to take place at the same time. (Remember the –ing verb form is used to make the continuous tenses and it’s also known as an infinite verb.)
We’ve all read beginning work with sentences similar to this:
Jack slammed the door, throwing the newspaper on the sofa.
Because a door slam is almost instantaneous, most likely too short to accommodate throwing the newspaper on the sofa, these are not simultaneous actions. The unrestricted –ing modifier does not belong here.
One can write,
Jack coaxed the door open inch by inch, looking for movement in the living room’s dark interior, holding his flashlight ready to use as a weapon, and hoping he would see whoever was in there before they saw him.
These actions can be performed while coaxing a door open.
It’s also important to remember that unrestricted –ing modifiers elaborate the action of the base clause. And that’s all they do.
Beginners sometimes use restricted –ing phrases like this:
Raindrops beat against the lawn, leaving channels of water.
The bell pealed loud and clear, scattering a clan of blackbirds.
The sun crept above the forest, casting the darkness back.
Rather than elaborating the action of main clause, these –ing phrases deliver an effect of the action of the main clause. They belong to a category of sentence that Stanley Fish calls the “subordinating” style.
He writes, p.45 in How to Write a Sentence:
The subordinating style orders its components in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance).
The leaving channels of water is caused by the raindrops, is subsequent to the raindrops, and, in a hierarchical sense, is perhaps less important than the raindrops beating the lawn.
Modifiers are not subordinating, they are additive, “a coordinate, rather than a subordinate construction” (Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, p. 62). Remember again, the –ing verb forms denote continuous action and, when modifying a main clause, they indicate simultaneity with the action of the main verb.
Here, for example, the restricted –ing modifiers are additive:
Raindrops beat against the lawn, drenching the buttercups, thumping the daisies, and drowning the dandelions.
We can also reverse the order,
Drenching the buttercups, thumping the daisies, and drowning the dandelions, raindrops beat against the lawn.
But when we reverse the order of the –ing phrases (a good test of intent to modify) used incorrectly to subordinate, we see effect precedes cause:
Leaving channels of water, raindrops beat against the new grass
Scattering a clan of blackbirds, the bell pealed loud and clear.
Casting the darkness back, the sun crept above the forest.
Good writers insure adequate duration of the main clause verb and make certain their unrestricted -ing modifiers are additive.
“But as he stood in the back corner of the small, plain beige room, swaying in place and flicking the tip of his tongue against the back of his front teeth, the archivist with the scratched black reading glasses knew that the most vital thing in the room wasn’t a classified file or a top-secret piece of paper–it was the polished, rosy-cheeked man who sat alone at the single long table in the center of the room.” (Brad Meltzer, The Inner Circle)
President Wallace nodded slightly, beginning to pack up, but never turning around. (Brad Meltzer, The Inner Circle)
President Wallace turned slowly, showing off his calming gray eyes and flashing the warm, fatherly grin that had won him the governorship of Ohio as well as the White House. (Brad Meltzer, The Inner Circle)
Sensing a possible rival, I watched him warily, wondering who he was. (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
John Gardner postulated that beginning writers overuse or misuse –ing phrases out of a desire for sentence variety. And, when used correctly and with skill, -ing phrases do provide sentence variety. In the Brad Meltzer and Ralph Ellison sentences above, each unrestricted –ing modifier could be changed to a verb. The Ralph Ellison, for example: I sensed a possible rival, watched him warily, wondered who he was.
Prose would suffer a major loss if we didn’t have these action-bearing modifiers to slip into modifying positions and save us from having to list, verb after verb, actions that occur simultaneously.
We must only remember not to use an -ing form as a verb; to use a main verb of sufficient duration so the action of the unrestricted -ing modifiers can occur simultaneously; and to make certain the unrestricted -ing modifiers are additive and not used to subordinate or introduce causality.