For those unfamiliar with it (or who have forgotten the source) title of this post comes from Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The original line (“Out, damned spot! out, I say!) is spoken by Lady Macbeth, who is sleepwalking and imagines herself trying to wash the blood of the murdered king from her hands. Somehow, Shakespeare seemed appropriate here as someone who knew how to use the English language to best effect.
I’ve discussed this topic before (links below), and I’ll try not to rant (not too much), but I find it frustrating when I see writers abusing and overusing present-participle phrases.
I’ve recently been editing a couple of novels where the present participle phrases run rampant. Why, since I’ve blogged about these before, do I feel the need to revisit the subject? I suppose it’s possible that all of my readers have already repaired their writing. If so, then please pass the wisdom along.
That said, let’s begin. Look at the following passage and decide what (if anything) is wrong it. It comes from And I Will Love You Forever by New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham. (And, yes, it’s a romance story, but that should not color your opinion.)
He found the strength to set his hands on her, his fingers curling around her shoulders, and then he paused, lifting her chin so that she met his eyes. She could scarcely see him, her tears blinding her.
She looked up, his eyes blazing into hers, his heart revealing itself to her. “Forget me not,” he bade her, his lips closing over hers, the taste of tears and blood mingling in that kiss.
If you said there’s nothing wrong or you think that because it’s by a bestselling author it’s okay, then you need to readjust your thinking about what good writing is.
First, though, let me be honest. That’s not how Heather Graham wrote it. She’s an excellent writer and has been writing longer than some of you have been alive. So, how did she write it? Like this—
He found the strength to set his hands on her. His fingers curled around her shoulders, and then he paused, lifting her chin so that she met his eyes. She could scarcely see him, she was so blinded by her tears.
She looked up. Into the blaze of his eyes. Into his heart. “Forget me not,” he bade her. Then his lips closed over hers, and the taste of tears and blood mingled in that kiss. “You must remember me, love,” he whispered.
All right, I hear your objections: “Rick, she’s got a comma splice in the last sentence of the first paragraph and TWO incomplete sentences in the second paragraph!”
So what? They work very well, don’t they? If you’ve read Scott’s and my punctuation book, you’ll know that these are perfectly acceptable exceptions to “proper” grammar. The first version I gave you, my modified version, has all perfect sentences, but it’s a poor reflection of what Heather wrote. Let’s examine my bastardized version further to understand why.
What’s wrong with my version is the excessive use of present participle phrases that give most of those perfect sentences the same structure. Heather used ONE present participle phrase “lifting her chin” and she did it perfectly and seamlessly. I don’t know about you, but my version—even though it says the same things—is pretty emotionless compared to her original.
Lesson number one: You don’t need to make your sentences sound as if you spent all night perfecting each one. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you cannot use a simple sentence> Trying to avoid them may cause you to end up transforming every simple sentence into the same type of complex one, as I demonstrated.
Now, here’s a passage from a work I’m editing for the author. I changed the character names, deleted one place name, and corrected “taught” to “taut,” but otherwise I left it as in the original.
Jason removed his gauntlet and wiped away the sweat and rainwater still soaking his face. As he watched the mists rolling across the ground, their presence offering a soothing warmth to the wet and chilly night air, he caught a flicker of movement from the pile of black rock that marked the monster’s corpse.
A hand, its skin pale where it was not marked with soot, reached up from the mound. An arm and body followed after it as an elf woman, her pale flesh and dark hair strikingly familiar to the dark elf whom they had fought back on the road, pulled herself from the rubble.
Every bowstring was pulled taut as the archers took aim on their new target. An elf warrior clad in brilliant mail and soft green robes, a stag’s antler protruding from his hood, aimed his own sword toward the elf woman and shouted an order to the archers.
In unison, the archers unleashed a volley at the dark elf. Not one of the arrows landed within an arm’s reach of the woman as she finished crawling from the rubble.
The archers continued to fire, the woman paying them no mind as every shot missed her. She simply stood up and began to wipe away the soot and dust that covered her.
ONE POSSIBLE REVISION:
Jason removed his gauntlet and wiped away the sweat and rainwater still soaking his face. The mists rolling across the ground offered a soothing warmth to the wet and chilly night air. He caught a flicker of movement from the pile of black rock that marked the monster’s corpse.
A hand, its skin pale where it was not marred with soot, reached up from the mound. An arm and body followed, then an elf woman, her pale flesh and dark hair strikingly similar to the dark elf they had fought back on the road, pulled herself from the rubble.
The archers took aim on their new target, with every bowstring pulled taut. An elf warrior, who was clad in brilliant mail and soft green robes and had a stag’s antler protruding from his hood, aimed his own sword at the elf woman and shouted an order to the archers.
In unison, they unleashed a volley at the dark elf. Not one of the arrows landed within an arm’s reach of the woman. The archers continued to fire, but she paid them no mind. She simply stood and wiped away the soot and dust that covered her.
I’m not trying to single out this writer. I’ve seen MANY writers overuse present particles and “as” clauses. I simply used these examples because they were handy. In my revision note that I fixed the “as” clauses as well.
Here’s another passage where this writer used two “as” clauses in one paragraph. I’ve put those two in caps for easy viewing.
“By the Abyss!” Jason screamed AS the root he had taken cover behind exploded in a shower of splinters and flames. Shards of wood embedded into his skin and a singed splinter caught him in his left eye. He tried to force his eye open, but the pain only robbed him of his senses AS he felt the splinter digging into his eye beneath the lid.
The root Jason had taken cover behind exploded in a shower of splinters and flames. “By the Abyss!” he screamed. Shards of wood embedded into his skin, and a singed splinter caught him in his left eye. He tried to force his eye open, but the splinter dug into it beneath the lid and the pain robbed him of his senses.
Although I’ve focused on these two particular writing issues, they are symptomatic of an even broader issue among writers: habit phrases and patterns. Every writer I know, myself included, has been guilty of one or more repetitive writing habits. All of us have certain speech habits and expressions that we overuse, often without realizing it, like the person who says “uh” every other word.
The problem leaks over into our writing because our first thought as new writers is to write the way we speak. When a person misuses an expression in speech, chances are good it will be wrong in the writing.
A person says, “Let’s keep alert inside less someone sneak up on us.” The correct word here is “lest” not “less.” It’s an easy mistake to make because “less” is a more common word. Even if you heard the correct word used, your brain may think it’s wrong.
This same thing happens when people write “It doesn’t phase me.” We’re used to hearing the word and unless we’ve seen the phrase in print, we may not know that “faze” is the correct word here because “faze” and “phase” are pronounced the same. Besides, “phase” is a far more common word and has several meanings: she’s going through a phase; the phase of the moon; I phased out for a moment.
NOTE: My version of MS Word (Word 2010) did flag the word “phase” in “It doesn’t phase me” above and offered the correct word. But this won’t always be the case for homophonic words. No one piece of software will catch the same issue every time.
This is why Scott and I so strongly suggest that you read your work out loud (or have someone read it to you) so you can listen for patterns and repeated expressions. If you have someone else read to you, you’ll likely pick up punctuation issues as well because you’re not the one reading it as you think you wrote it.
Final note: I’ll be doing a post on grammar checking software in the very near future, so be sure to read it before you consider wasting your money on any software of this type.