Starting a sentence with an -ing phrase

The manuscript I’m currently working on is chock-full of sentences that begin with phrases using the present participle (-ing), and a lot of them read in ways the author doesn’t intend. I thought I’d offer a quick-and-dirty explanation of how to avoid some of the most common problems associated with those phrases, in case it’s useful to any of you.

First, don’t open a sentence with an -ing phrase unless the action occurring in that phrase happens at the same time as the action in the main part of the sentence (or unless you’ve included a word like “after” to clarify the timing). The following sentences don’t work:

Unlocking the door, she left the room.

Walking toward him, she placed her hand along his cheek.

Do you see why? You can’t unlock the door and leave the room at the same time, and it’s highly unlikely that you would be placing your hand on someone’s cheek while walking toward them. Such sentences need to be reworded.

Also, when you start a sentence with a participial phrase, that phrase needs to modify the subject of the main clause. This sentence is also incorrect:

Nearing unconsciousness again, his head slumped forward.

It really isn’t his head that’s nearly unconscious. To make this correct, you’d need to rephrase to say something along the lines of “He neared unconsciousness again, and his head slumped forward.”

I hope this helps someone!

28 thoughts on “Starting a sentence with an -ing phrase”

  1. Ohhhhhh yes.

    The other one that drives me nuts is the misplaced modifier phrase. I hear it on TV all the time.

    “As a parent, my kids need to eat healthy meals.”

    “As an American, the Constitution must be upheld!”

  2. I think it will help me, yes. (Tell me if I can’t link to it in my LJ — I know there are other people who are interested in such tidbits, too.)

  3. Thank you so much for this. I do this a lot in my first drafts. I know it’s not right as I go back and re-read it, but now I know exactly why. Makes a ton of sense.

    I also see this in a lot of stuff I critique. I’ll be sure to reference this post because the explanation is so good.

    Please do more of these.


  4. I hope so, too!

    I also hope that barbarienne’s post about the word being ‘hee hee hee’ not hehehe has some effect. .. . I used to just ignore hehehe as people typing heh and leaving off the final h for some reason, but now I see it and think, “Three he in a row!”

    Sometimes they’re hard to rephrase succinctly and briefly. There is one near the end of The Element of Fire that bugged me every tiume I read it, but it’s such a quick way of saying what it says that I finally gave up and just take in what I t hink she meant and ignore the phrasing.

  5. That phrasing is one of my pet peeves! I think of it as lazy writing. And I’ve noticed it in some TV commercial narration lately – I have to MUTE when those commercials come on.

  6. I thought that your first example, “Unlocking the door, she left the room” was almost (but not quite) acceptable. I gave it a little more thought, and ran into this curiosity: I’d find “Locking the door behind her, she left the room” acceptable (because you can lock the door behind you as part of the process of leaving), but plain “Locking the door, she left the room,” seems just as bad as the first example (it brings up an image of the subject stupidly bonking her head on the door she’s just locked). How odd. Do you agree?

  7. I think that with “behind her,” you’re trying to tag the action temporally. To my mind, though, if you can lock the door behind you, you’ve already left the room; I still wouldn’t consider the actions to be simultaneous.

  8. Damn acrobats and cat thieves. They’re always trying to show of their ‘mad skillz’ by locking doors that are behind them. Why can’t they just turn around and lock them like normal people do.


  9. I’m actually of the opposite opinion of you, here. I found “Unlocking the door, she left the room” perfectly acceptable, as the sequence of events is straightforward and clear. I think “She unlocked the door and left the room” is more active, and probably a better choice 99% of the time, but I have no particular objection to the ing-led example.

    Whereas “Locking the door behind her, she left the room” throws me completely off because in my head she is already outside the door (else she couldn’t lock it behind her)…and thenyou tell me she left the room. I realize not all readers have the problem I do, but it really chucks me out of a book when the sequencing of the actions is wonky.

    It is, perhaps, a good thing that I am not a copyeditor, because the urge to rewrite that sentence would be irresistible.

  10. Agreeing wholly with this, I admit to have abused this sentence structure in my youth. This habit is because of inexperience and lack of confidence. Only the latter can a writer conquer today.

  11. Now I am confused – I was taught that the ‘ing clause’ can be used this way :

    When one action follows very quickly after another done by the same person or thing, we can express the first action with a present participle:

    • He put on his coat and left the house.
    Putting on his coat, he left the house.

    • She dropped the gun and put her hands in the air. Dropping the gun, she put her hands in the air.


  12. When writing in the past tense, wouldn’t the present participle (-ing verb)at the start a sentence create a conflict in verb tense?

    “As he swam in the lake he saw a fish.”

    Cannot be rewritten as;

    “Swimming in the lake, he saw a fish.”

    Although one can swim and see a fish simultaneously, one cannot simultaneously do a thing present and in the past. Not yet, anyway.

    Although I’ve written this as if I know what I am taking about, I do not. It really is a question, so please let me know if my reasoning is incorrect.

  13. David, you can use that form to indicate that one thing is happening at the same time as another. Your example is problematic, though, because it isn’t clear whether he sees a fish that is swimming or whether he saw a fish while swimming.

  14. Thanks.
    I was in the middle of a three hour class this morning when one of my students of my writing 12 class asked why I’d marked yet again their ‘ing’ participle verb at the beginning of the sentence incorrect.

    I tried to explain why they shouldn’t, I gave examples of stronger writing, I even said that there may be subject confusion, and errors with time, seeing as they would mix simple past with past continuous. But they weren’t buying it. I then promised to find better examples. Thanks for your examples!

  15. One of the things that I love about the internet is that a person’s thoughts—useful or not—can stick around for years waiting for just the right person to find them. Fortunately for me, your very useful thoughts here have waited around nearly five years for me to find them.

    I’m nearing the end of my first novel, a 3-year endeavor (ironically, it is a fantasy—but don’t worry, that’s not a plug). The closer I get to the end, the more I see that the 120,000 word road behind me is littered with this exact error. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’ll be bookmarking this page and referencing it from the moment I begin my revision.

    So thank you for the part you will play in helping me complete my work. If you saw how much of a mess it is, you’d realize how big of a part that really is.

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