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Monday, May 4, 2020

Participial Time Warps

Today I want to talk about an elusive problem that I see regularly in manuscripts but that almost no one talks about. In fact, every so often, I have to scour the English books and online sources to make sure I'm not the crazy one.

I'm not. (We'll, let's be honest, I am, but . . . yeah 😉)

But it does seem that even textbooks and English teachers don't want to address "participial time warps" very often, and instead just want to address "dangling participials" (another common problem that I'll save for a future post).

What is a participle? Well, first I'll have to address that. And geez, have you ever noticed how English terminology sounds unnecessarily complicated?

Take my earlier post about how to use a semicolon. The "English" definition would be something like "Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses that are related." But a simpler way to say the same thing is, "Use a semicolon to connect two complete sentences that are related, turning them into one sentence." Most people haven't learned what an "independent clause is," so using an unfamiliar term to explain another unfamiliar term isn't very helpful.

Anyway, sometimes writers unintentionally create "time warps" by misusing participial phrases, such as,

Jumping on the tramp, Alfred went inside for a cookie. 

This is a "time warp." Let me explain why.

What is a Participle? 

At it's most basic form, a participle is a verb word acting as an adjective.

If you don't remember what an adjective is, it is a word that modifies (describes) a noun. "Yellow," "small," "round" are all adjectives.

Sometimes you can take verb words (aka, "action words") and turn them into adjectives by adding -ed or -ing endings. This is a participle. 

The injured dog whined.

"Injured" is a participle, because "injure" is a verb, and it is being used as an adjective to describe a noun ("dog").

She couldn't find her running shoes. 

"Running" is a participle, because "run" is a verb, and it is being used to describe "shoes."

Participial Phrases

But the time warps happen with participial phrases.

Phrases are groups of words that are part of a sentence, and that don't stand or make sense on their own (they lack a subject and a verb). If that's too confusing, don't sweat it. I'll give you some examples.

So a participial phrase is a group of words that uses a participle and modifies (describes) something else.

Jumping on the tramp, Alfred hummed "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

"Jumping on the tramp" is a participial phrase.

It modifies (describes) Alfred. It uses a "verb phrase" as a description.

Melinda, taking a deep breath, walked to the front of the class.

"Taking a deep breath" is a participial phrase.

A child wearing a mask looked out the window.

"Wearing a mask" is a participial phrase that describes the child.

Matt decided to celebrate, having passed his driver's test

"Having passed his driver's test" is also a participial phrase.

You've probably written loads of participial phrases, even if you didn't know that's what they were or exactly how they functioned.

Now we can get to the time warps.

Participial Time Warps

Since the participial phrase is a modifier, not an actual verb, it can create some issues with timelines when misunderstood.

For example,

Jumping on the tramp, Alfred went inside for a cookie.

"Jumping on the tramp" is modifying Alfred but Alfred is going inside for a cookie. How can he be jumping on the tramp when he's going inside? He can't. He must have jumped on the tramp and then went inside.

Alfred jumped on the tramp before he went inside for a cookie.

This fixes the wonky time issue.

Here is another.

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

You cannot yell and hold your breath at the same time. So this is a problem. But you can easily fix it:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, then held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

Here's one another.

Making a sandwich, George ate every bite.

Actually, he probably made the sandwich, and then ate every bite.

And another,

Tiffany, locking her front door, scraped the frost off her windshield.

Now fair warning, there are definitely some gray areas! And you can really drive yourself crazy trying to properly handle all of them.

Putting on her makeup, Jasmine drove to college.

This one can be a little tricky. Most women put on their makeup before driving, but it's actually not uncommon for a woman to put on makeup in the car, while driving. But then "driving" becomes a gray area, because technically, they put it on when at stoplights, not when they are literally pressing the gas pedal. But "drove to college" is kind of all encompassing. It probably means the whole journey to college, including all the stoplights. So maybe she was really putting on her makeup during her drive to college.

"And" can be a slippery one too. Often it means things happen in order.

Jasper washed his face and brushed his teeth.

Clearly he washed his face and then brushed his teeth, not at the same time.

But throw in a participial phrase, and it's a little trickier.

Taking a deep breath, Melinda walked to the front of the class and gave her presentation.

If "Taking a deep breath" is modifying Melinda, does that mean it's still modifying her when she's giving her presentation (which would be an error)? I've looked in textbooks, and I'm actually not sure on the answer. In my prior example, the timeline was sequential, so I lean toward that, but I've heard other opinions.

Unfortunately, the English language, like all languages, is imperfect. It's weird working in the industry and finding all the slippage and gray areas that there aren't definitive answers for.

So don't kill yourself over getting this perfect all the time.

But it doesn't hurt to clarify when you can.

Just watch out for the obvious time warps. Alfred can't be jumping on the tramp the same time he goes into the house for a cookie. 

For further reading on this, you can check out Joshua Essoe's post on it on Grammar Girl. I admit I stole his terminology of "time warp"--it seemed most fitting.

Let me know if you have any specific insight on any gray areas in the comments. I would also argue that context plays a role in clarity.


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