Participles, Weeds, and Light

Is there a grammatical mistake in this sentence: Too much partying, his parents believed, was the cause of Sam’s poor performance at school, leading to him putting his academic record at risk. In fact, there is only one outright grammatical complaint to be made, though that might not be enough to trim the sentence nicely. Listen closely, and you’ll sense that the balance is off. How can we see that in the design of the sentence and what can we do?

First, the mistake. The last section of the sentence, the phrase leading to him putting his academic record at risk, has two words ending with the suffix –ing. The first of these, leading, is a present participle (more on that in a moment), and the second, putting, is a gerund. A participle is an adjective, but a gerund is a noun, both built from verbs in order to carry a sense of action or movement, but both with quite different missions: the adjective is to describe something and the noun to name something. What, then, is the gerund putting naming? The act whereby an academic record is at risk. And is this action attributed to someone? The writer says that Sam is the person taking the risk. And right there, traditional grammar steps in to say him putting should therefore be his putting, because the action of putting belongs to someone, to Sam, and that possession should be indicated with the possessive case of the pronoun: leading to his putting his academic record at risk.

With that grammatical correction, though, we step into a prickly patch of weeds, because now we have the same word, his, twice in proximity—always something to watch for. Weeds, though, even grammatical weeds, are just plants in the wrong place, as the gardeners say, and so we may be able to take this wordy, weedy phrase as a way to redesign the larger site. We said earlier that leading is a participle, an adjective stressing some action. What is leading Sam to put his academic record at risk (at least according to his parents) is all his partying, so the participle leading is modifying partying, another gerund. And if that is the logic of the sentence, then why not just say it: leading him to put his academic record at risk. With that change, we have unwritten one of the two occurrences of the possessive pronoun his.

But let’s not put down the hoe just yet. In that revision we find the prepositional phrase at risk. Every prepositional phrase must have an object, and the two together form a phrase. We cannot write English without prepositional phrases, but we can write better English with fewer of them, so when we revise a sentence, we should question whether the object of a particular prepositional phrase can be converted into a transitive verb in order to sharpen the conception we are presenting. And, in fact, we can do just that in our revision: leading him to risk his academic record.

These two changes have concentrated on the final participial phrase of the sentence, but we could also consider changing that entire phrase into a clause: Too much partying, his parents believed, was the cause of Sam’s poor performance at school; this, they were persuaded, led him to risk his academic record. Note that in order to keep the sentence balanced, another parenthetical clause, they were persuaded, needed to be added to the second half. The verb persuaded is a synonym for believed, but it advances the parents’ belief by including the idea of conviction. The parents didn’t just believe, they believed fully that Sam’s partying was the cause of his problems. A change in the design of a sentence, then, can be an opportunity to say more than we might have suspected we thought at first.

The sooner we uproot the idea that good writers don’t have to revise, the sooner we’ll find the confidence and energy to just begin. Ideas will grow in profusion, and from all that growing forth we’ll learn what to keep and what to trim to thin a patch for the light.

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2 Comments

  1. While I enjoy all, today’s post in particular was enlightening.

  2. Another superb essay. I love the distinction between gerund and participle, which is complex. The format, asking a question of the reader at the outset, is a strong way to get us engaged, thinking, as we read. A challenging, thoughtful, essay, at the time of the year when I’m doing much weeding in my garden.

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