Friday, February 18, 2011

What's so bad about gerunds?

I know gerunds are frowned upon, but I’ve never understood why. They’re useful. They change the rhythm and add variety instead of having all the sentences sound the same. Turning the corner, she spotted the dog. "As" isn't warmly received either, which is another way you could write it: As she turned the corner, she spotted the dog. Reversing it is awkward: She spotted the dog when she turned the corner . Then there’s She turned the corner and spotted the dog. That’s fine, but how many of those sentences in a row do you want to read? If you avoid them, why do you do it?
Photo by Mike Baird http://bairdphotos.com
I’ve heard gerunds are considered weaker, but that’s not much of an explanation. My theory is that gerunds are a bit scary and people are unsure about their use. It’s those dangling participles: Running down the street, the rock tripped her. No, the rock wasn’t running down the street. The gerund phrase must modify the subject of the main clause. Running down the street, she tripped over a rock. Not great writing, but it’s correct. She was running; the rock was stationary, at least until she tripped over it. Or maybe it’s the possessives sometimes needed with gerunds. But that’s another blog for another day.
Using --ing in progressive verbs is a different matter. In those cases, it depends on the context. He was crossing the street when the car hit him. The sentence has a different meaning if you say He crossed the street when the car hit him.
A gerund is a participle used as a noun. It can be the subject of a verb: Crying over spilled milk won’t put it back in the glass. Or Jogging is hard on the knees.  A participle is when the verb form is used as a modifier: The burning house lit up the night sky.  Or it can be progressive, a part of a verb phrase: The thief is running from the police.
I like gerunds and will continue using them until I find a good reason to stop. Do you have one? I’d really, really like to know what it is.

16 comments:

Peg Brantley said...

Sitting before my computer, reading your blog, understanding the bottom line . . .

I concur. Gerunds, in moderation, add movement.

Saying, I am just.

Patricia Winton said...

I like gerunds, too. The real difficulty for me, as a teacher of English as a foreign language, is explaining why we can say "I like going to the cinema" but not "I want going to the cinema." It's a point of grammar that most native speakers don't notice, but that drives foreigners crazy because THERE ARE NO RULES. You have to memorize it verb by verb.

VR Barkowski said...

I've often wondered about gerund discrimination. I use them, but rarely to begin a sentence because of the vague subject and the distancing POV.

I'd never write: Running into the street, he knelt over the stricken woman. It would be: He ran the street and knelt over the stricken woman. The POV feels closer to me. The subject is identified, and there's less author intrusion.

In the first sentence, 'running' is just hanging out there. You'd never say I running or he running and if you were to add in the 'was,' you're entering passive territory: He was running into the street. Or if replaced with first person: I was running into the street. *cringe* Very distant indeed.

Grace Topping said...

I love gerunds. In fact, I have to refrain from using too many of them in my manuscript.

Stephen Tremp said...

Hi Ellis, first time visitor .... feedback on the first version of my book BREAKTHROUGH was I abused the use of gerunds. On the revised version I had took most out. Did a word search and found I used Quickly well over 100 times. I took out all but four usages and found I lost nothing. The MS actually read better.

Like Peg said, gerunds used in moderation is fine.

Sandy Cody said...

I agree. I like gerunds. The key is to use them correctly and in moderation. Isn't that true of almost everything in writing?

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Gerund phrases at the beginning of the sentence call attention to the narrator, and are unnatural in spoken American English. They may *feel* writerly but are "telling" constructions, not "showing" constructions: IMHO more so in the "rotated" position than as an intact part of the predicate. You can vary rhythm and flavor of sentence without telling. You can use repetition of rhythm to good effect, like Dennis Lehane does in the intro to "A Drink Before the War," written before he'd fully developed the voice he used in Mystic River.

I also agree there are no rules, except grab your audience and don't let them go...

Ellis Vidler said...

Wow, lots of opinions. Since I write in third person, I don't see them as distant or unnatural. I can't picture opening a sentence with one in first person though. I look at them carefully and believe I'm using them correctly, but if I'm writing fast, I probably miss some. I search for *ing. Then they really jump at you.
Just have to hope I catch them on edits--along with many other words I overuse, such as "just," which I've managed to use twice in one sentence. Quickly isn't one of mine, but I have a list to search for.

Ellis Vidler said...

Peg, that's funny. I laughed out loud when I read it.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, I think you've said it. The problem is using them correctly. Usage is difficult to explain to others. Sometimes I have to stop and think about one to decide.

Maryn said...

I can tell you one thing, my editor doesn't like gerunds. I do, but I agree in moderation. They change the rhythm and add interest to the narrative. I think the trick is to say the sentence out loud--I'm a big fan of talking out my book--to see if it's something I would SAY naturally when TELLING the story. If I would, then I leave it in. If it sounds stilted, then out it comes.

Ellis Vidler said...

I agree, Maryn. I'm telling a story, and I have to trust my ear. Blindly following any sort of advice doesn't work. There are rules of grammar that I try to stick to, at least in the narrative, but wholesale banning of anything seems unwise to me. On the other hand, if I had an editor telling me, I'd probably do it.

Sarah Glenn said...

I think gerunds are a holdover from Genitive Absolute in ancient Greek and Ablative Absolute in Latin. The construction and placement in the sentence are very similar.

At least, that's MY excuse for using them....

Jean Henry Mead said...

I can't write without a few gerunds. I'm using them all the time. :)

Ellis Vidler said...

Sarah, Two years of Latin didn't take me that far, but it sounds good.

Jean, I'm the same--it's a Yoda thing. Using them, I am.

Frederick Guyton said...

For some people, it is almost impossible to understand those complicated rules for gerunds. On the other side, there is nothing complicated at all. Adding three letters to the verb cannot be too hard. More information can be learnt from the published story!