The title of this piece may conjure up the image of gerunds lurking in corners, wearing leather jackets and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
Sorry, gerunds! There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re not the bad boys of writing. It’s just that we, as writers, need to understand you better. I used to misunderstand you myself.
Fortunately for me, my critique partners and editors over the years have helped me solve my little gerund habit.
“What’s wrong with using them, anyway?” you ask. After all, writers use them all the time.
You’re right. Authors do use gerunds all the time, and when used properly, gerunds are awesome.
Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print (Browne, King) states that new authors often make the error of starting sentences with gerunds. I recall they advised to avoid them, but needed to remember why, specifically, they felt it didn’t work.
Here are two common uses of gerunds that everyone who writes should know.
The Gerund Phrase
For those who don’t know, a gerund is a verb that ends in ing. They are used often in two different ways. The first way to use them is in a “gerund phrase”. This type of phrase can magically convert a word that would normally be a verb into a noun, or the subject or object of a sentence. Here’s an example:
Converting a verb to a noun is something gerunds can do.
The gerund “converting” takes the verb “to convert” and turns it into a noun. (Magic!) The phrase “Converting a verb to a noun” becomes the subject of the sentence.
That’s a gerund phrase.
Gerunds in Present Participle Phrases
Gerunds can also be used as present participle phrases. These are used as adjectives to describe the noun or subject of the sentence.
Rushing for work, Bill ran down the stairs.
The phrase “rushing for work” modifies “Bill,” the noun or subject of the sentence. It tells us something else Bill is doing or why he’s doing it (i.e., why he ran down the stairs). More on participle phrases here: http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/participlephrase.htm.
Participle phrases are tricky at the best of times. Because they’re modifiers, they can be easily misplaced. (My personal nemesis in grade 8). For more on misplaced modifiers, go here: http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.htm
Another way people use participle phrases is the “as” construction:
As he ran for the bus, Bill tripped on his untied shoelaces.
The trickiest part of participle phrases is also their benefit: they bring a sense of immediacy or simultaneous action to a sentence.
This is both and advantage and a disadvantage. Here’s why. People often get their phrases out of order, try to do too many things, or introduce simultaneity when something should happen sequentially.
Searching for her phone, she dialed her friend’s number.
Here, the sentence says she’s dialing her friend’s number at the same time as she’s searching for her phone, which is impossible. These two actions would be better off as separate actions:
She searched for her phone and dialed her friend’s number.
When it comes to participle phrases, only use them if you’re sure that the action in the participle phrase can be done at the same time as the other actions in the sentence.
Shielding his eyes, Bill looked at the horizon.
Here, Bill can shield his eyes and look at the horizon at the same time.
Still not sure? Here’s a quick test, I gleaned from a reddit page:
Try swapping the order of the events.
Bill looked at the horizon, shielding his eyes.
(Yep. He can both shield his eyes and look simultaneously).
She dialed her friend’s number, searching for her phone.
(This is technically impossible, unless she has two phones. She can’t search for her phone and dial it at the same time.)
So there’s some tips on how to use gerunds. Use them at will!
However, like any word, if a gerund verb becomes something used too often, it can act like a repeated word, and be something to consider revising.
What about you? Do you use gerunds in your writing? (tell me in the comments). If so, I hope you found this article useful.