I remember reading some writing advice a little while back about banishing the verb “to be” from your prose, in all its forms.
I think about this from time to time, and it does often improve a sentence by encouraging you to choose stronger verbs. (Not that this rule applies 100% in all situations: sometimes you’re just getting too fancy.) I thought about this rule earlier this morning while writing. It occurred to me in the context of participles, and how I sometimes overuse them.
(This post here is about to get pretty grammatical, so bear with me as I break this down to be as reader-friendly as possible.)
So, what’s a participle, you ask?
Drawing from Wikipedia, a participle is a verb form which modifies a noun or verb (or noun or verb phrase), thereby playing a similar role to that of an adjective or adverb. Participles in English usually take on the -ing or -en, but are not to be confused with a gerunds, which also take on the -ing ending, but are defined as verb forms that functions as a nouns.
Before you get to saying “Gah! English!,” these appear in many (most?) languages. In fact, the facility of words to fill different parts of speech with only a simple modification forms a key attribute of language, without which it probably couldn’t function. (I’m not linguist, but I don’t think that’s an overstatement.)
So what am I talking about? Take Google:
Noun: “I heard Google announced a number of new products today.”
Verb: “Hold on while I google that.”
Participle: “Googling answers has become second nature to my generation.”
Gerund: “Googling is pretty addictive, once you get used to it.”
Need more? Consider: Verbs are a key part of speech. But our ability to verb nouns is a necessary function of language, so much so that verbing has become a habitual, if sometimes humorous pastime—to such an extent that I’ve been verbing, participling, and gerunding this whole paragraph.
SO. How did I start thinking about this during today’s writing? And what does all this have to do with rejecting “to be,” and all its works, and all its empty promises?
I have a habit of stacking participles on top of each other. I think many of us do. We want to describe something, and so we start piling on ALL THE MODIFIERS!!!!!!! And as a result, we forget to use precise verbiage.
We talk about how the roaring wind was banging the shutters against the house.
All well and good, but we can get rid of one participle by using it as a verb instead, and it doesn’t particularly matter which:
- The roaring wind banged the shutters against the house.
- The wind roared, banging the shutters against the house.
The takeaway here is twofold:
- Be wary of piling on modifiers of any sort (participles, adjectives, adverbs)
- Paying attention to participles can help you spot weaker verbs, and oftentimes replacing that weak verb with your participle will make for a stronger sentence.
Pro writing tip for the day. You’re welcome.