Tips

Simultaneous Participial Phrases

or You Can’t Do Those at the Same Time!

Sipping her coffee, Laura told me about her day.

If your first reaction is “Wait, what?” then you’ve caught on to the grammar gaffe that affects… well, just about all of us sooner or later.  Yes, it’s the dreaded non-simultaneous participial phrase. Better known as “You can’t do those at the same time.” Because no matter how skilled she is, Laura cannot tell anyone about her day while sipping her coffee. The action of the participial phrase needs to be concurrent with the main action of the sentence.

Let’s step back for a minute. We experience a timeline as we read; we expect the first thing to happen and the second thing to happen, and so on. In the above example, Laura is the subject of the sentence, and sipping is a participle.  A participial phrase such as sipping her coffee tells the reader that the action is taking place simultaneously with the rest of the sentence, Laura told me about her day. But logic would tell us that this isn’t possible, which causes the reader to stop and reconsider the sentence again.

Instead of :

Sipping her coffee, Laura told me about her day.

The sentence could be changed to:

Ignoring her coffee, Laura told me about her day.

OR:

Wrapping her hands around her coffee, Laura told me about her day.

When writing, consider how you use your participles and participial phrases. Sure, there are plenty of things that can be done concurrently—singing and dancing, nodding and smiling, kicking and screaming—but a non-physical action married to a physical action sometimes alleviates the pressure of ensuring the logic is correct as well as the grammar. For instance, it’s easy to walk and consider, look and remember, run and ponder.

And then there are dangling participles… but we’ll save that for another day.


Comments

  1. I love you. Just thought I’d say it…out loud. But really, thank you. I see this error all the time in books and manuscripts.

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