The Merry Grammarian

Staying Mindful of Initial –ING Verbs

As writers, we’re often taught to vary our sentence construction. Sentences that are always the same length, with the same general syntax, are boring. Good writing has a rhythm, and part of that rhythm comes from using a mix of dependent and independent clauses, lists, prepositional phrases, and more.

One of the more common ways we vary our sentences is by beginning with an –ING verb. For example:

  • Glancing toward Ella, I realized her eyes were filled with tears.

This use of the initial –ING verb is great—it’s got action, it’s interesting and it’s a nice way to vary your writing.

But there’s one tiny grammar issue you need to watch out for here: making sure the action you describe in the first half of the sentence can be performed simultaneously as the action in the second half of the sentence.
Bear with me.

In our example above, about Ella, that works because you can both glance and realize at the same time. Those actions can be done simultaneously, so that construction works just fine.

  • But if I wrote this—Crossing the room for my phone, I pressed two on my speed dial—it couldn’t work, because you can’t cross the room AND press two at the same time. The construction makes it seem like they’re happening at the same time, though logically, they can’t be.

The rule here is straightforward:

  • When starting with an –ING verb, if the actions can be performed at the same time, then you’re good to go. Otherwise, try revising.

We could rewrite this phone sentence pretty easily: “I crossed the room and pressed two on my speed dial.” Now, it’s clear those two actions are separate. If you really wanted to keep the initial –ING construction, you could do something like this: “Crossing the room for my phone, I wondered if Jonathan would answer a call from me.” Since those actions can be done simultaneously, it works.

Let’s look at one more example:

  • Shrieking with joy, I leaped from the couch. This works because you can shriek and leap at the same time.
  • Racing down the hall, I dashed through the door on the left. This is incorrect – the person is in the process of running down the hall, so she can’t also be dashing through a door at the same time.

A simple rewrite will do: I raced down the hall and dashed through the door on the left. Yes, we had to give up that initial –ING construction, but since it wasn’t working anyway, at least now we’re grammatically correct.

And that’s always a good way to be.