Starting Sentences with -ing Words
In my Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, I address the myth that writers should never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, or, nor, because, for, yet, so, since, unless, until). But I recently heard that there’s a new “rule” floating around in the industry that says that starting a sentence with an -ing word is the sign of an amateur.
Gotta admit, that was news to me! But I asked my agent, and she verified that she’d heard of this rule as well.
Now, an -ing word could be a verb, present participle, adjective, noun, or gerund (verb or participle used as a noun). So for clarification, here are some examples of each:
“Writing is the hardest work you’ll ever do.” (Writing is used as a gerund here.)
“Preparing her proposal package, she decided to include a head shot.” (Preparing is a present participle here.)
“Trembling hands opened the letter from her agent.” (Trembling is an adjective here.)
“Siblings often have opposite personalities.” (Siblings is a plural noun.)
“Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” (Dashing is a verb.)
I see sentences starting with -ing words all the time. Gerunds are often used at the beginning of a sentence, like “Fishing is my favorite sport” or “Seeing is believing.” Rewording sentences like that to avoid starting with an -ing word would result in pretty awkward flow.
And writers do want to vary sentence structure. One way to do that is to use participial phrases at the beginning of a few sentences.
So what’s the purpose behind this new rule?
I have a theory. I suspect it might be because sentences that start with -ing words often end up being grammatically incorrect.
In my Proofreading Secrets, I address the issue of dangling and misplaced modifiers. Here are some excerpts from that section of the book:
When you start a sentence with a modifying word or phrase, the subject of the sentence is what must be modified by that word or phrase. A “dangling modifier” is a phrase that does not clearly and sensibly modify the appropriate word. For example:
Changing the oil every three thousand miles, the Mustang seemed to run better.
A Mustang cannot change its own oil. So you’d want to rewrite that as something like “By changing the oil every three thousand miles, Fred found that his Mustang ran better.”
The position of a modifier determines what thing or action is being modified. Example:
Mona sent out a proposal for her book on living with horses last week.
Mona’s proposal wasn’t for a book about “living with horses last week.” Reword to:
Last week Mona sent out a proposal for her book on living with horses.
The introductory phrase must be accomplished at the same time as the action in the rest of the sentence. Example:
Hugging the postman, Delilah ripped open the box containing her new novel.
Delilah cannot simultaneously hug the postman and rip open a box. Reword to:
After hugging the postman, Delilah ripped open the box containing her new novel.
I see dangling and misplaced modifiers in the manuscripts I edit quite often. When I do, I point them out to the author and sometimes suggest ways to reword to fix the problem.
Analyzing sentences to catch any dangling or misplaced modifiers, and fixing them when they appear, does require work—and attention to detail. It’s much easier to simply decide not to start any sentences with -ing words. And writing should be easy … right?
When I hear any new writing advice, I check the industry-standard reference manuals. If I don’t find the rule there, I check multiple sources to see how pervasive the advice is and who’s giving it. I also try to understand the reasoning behind it. Then I can make my own decision about whether I wish to follow it. I don’t want to ignore advice that might improve my writing. But I also don’t want to blindly follow something simply because someone (or even a few someones) decided it should be a new rule.
So I did an internet search for this new guideline. Most of the forums I found had authors ranting against it. Many said they had no intention of following this advice. (Although I’m guessing that if they got a contract with a big traditional publisher whose editor told them to cut out all -ing words at beginnings of sentences or lose the contract, they’d probably accede.)
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’ve heard about this rule, please identify where you heard it. (No need to give names, but please do specify if the person was your agent, your publishing house editor, a freelance editor, someone in your critique group, etc.) If you found this rule in a professionally accepted reference book, I’d love to know the title and author. If you have a personal opinion on this, please state your thoughts as opinion. Presenting opinions as facts can be confusing. (Oops, guess I should’ve prefaced that last sentence with “After all” to avoid beginning with an -ing word. 🙂 )