When master writers use these verbals (verbs ending in —ing), they achieve a sense of action, a sense of immediacy that puts the reader in the midst of the scene. Take this scene from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard:
The waters came spurting in minute jets, blown from shells of tritons and Naiads, from noses of marine monsters, spluttering and pattering on greenish verges, bouncing and bubbling, wavering and quivering, dissolving into laughing little gurgles; from the whole fountain, the tepid water, the stones covered with velvety moss, emanated a promise of pleasure that would never turn to pain (Lampedusa 73).
Or, from Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek:
He threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on his knee, leaping again with his legs tucked up—it was as if he were made of rubber (Kazantzakis 70).
The Present Participle should not be confused with the ‘Progressive Tense’ which requires the verb ‘to be.’ At the end of this section you’ll find a brief discussion and examples of the progressive tense, also called ‘continuous Present.’
Because of their effectiveness in dragging the reader into the action, present participles make powerful sentence openers. When present participles are used as sentence openers, they function as adjectives, or to be more precise, as adjective substitutes which modify the subject.
Creeping from the house and slinking off like a thief: groping with his hand when first he got into the street as if he were a blind man, and looking often over his shoulder while he hurried away … (Dickens, Nickebly 902).
Hearing that, Hog’s eyes fogged up as if in gratitude as he mumbled under his breath, “Puerto Ricans ain’t that bad” (Guerrero 77).
Swarming over it all were lilies, roses and vines (Lewis 156).
Passing through a warehouse which presented every indication of a thriving business, Mr Cheeryble (for such Nicholas supposed him to be, from the respect which had been shown him by the warehousemen and porters whom they passed) … (Dickens, Nickebly 535).
Sucking a lemon he took stock of his surroundings (Lowry 349).
Scrutinizing the most abstract of legalistic terms, asking himself just what it meant to plead and pass judgment in terms of “legal fictions,” he proposed a methodic search for “archetypes” (Burke 90).
In his essay “To Err is Human—To Float, Divine,” collected in his book Mere Anarchy, Woody Allen connects with the reader by opening his book with the present participle:
Gasping for air, my life passing before my eyes in a series of wistful vignettes, I found myself suffocating some months ago under the tsunami of junk mail that cascades through the slot in my door each morning after kippers (3).
Following up on Woody Allen’s examples, focus on the prepositions that follow the present participle: ‘for’ follows ‘gasping’ and ‘before’ follows ‘passing.’ This pattern always emerges in the style of prolific writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth George and Stephen King.
In addition, master writers use the pattern to complement outward descriptions of actions in which characters are engaged.
Here are a few examples of the present participle followed by prepositions from Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby:
Climbing up another perpendicular flight, composed with great mechanical ingenuity of nothing but corner, stairs, Mr Ralph Nicklebly stopped to take a breath on the landing … (81).
Regarding with no small curiosity and interest all the busy preparations for the coming day which every street and almost every house displayed … (105).
Lifting up his eyes, as he arrived at the conclusion that there was no remedy for this unfortunate state of things, he beheld a horseman toward him … (223).
Uttering in a loud voice such of the latter allusions as were complimentary to the unconscious phenomenon, and giving the rest in a confidential ‘aside: to Nicholas … (466).
Passing through a warehouse which presented every indication of a thriving business, Mr Cheeryble (for such Nicholas supposed him to be, from the respect which had been shown him by the warehousemen and porters whom they passed) … (535).
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