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Are -ing words really that bad?

girl with pen thinkingA reader sent in a question that goes like this:

“OK, you said no question was stupid. So, I have been told not to use ing words in fiction writing because it is not the right tense. Why?”

Have you heard this advice? Have you wondered about it?

We use words that end in -ing all the time. The expression “fiction writing” in the question above contains one. Why and when should writers avoid them?

How could an -ing word not be the “right” tense unless (obviously) it’s used incorrectly?

Let’s check it out.

Verbs or verbals that end in -ing are common, and they serve many purposes. Running, breathing, drinking, sleeping, writing, and imagining are just a few examples.

She was running every morning.
Running in the darkness, she twisted her ankle.
Running was a regular part of her morning routine.
She had to take a break from running.
The running girl, an apparition in the morning fog, suddenly disappeared.
She is running again now.
She’s always running from her problems.

Out of any particular context, these sentences are fine, and the -ing words are used correctly. So what could be wrong with them?

Let’s review the basics of -ing words.

Three types of words that require -ing endings

Words that end with -ing have a variety of functions. They’re called participles (and a few other confusing terms), and they’re a big part of the English language.

Present, future, and past progressive verb combinations

When combined with auxiliary (helping) verbs such as to be (am, are, is, was, were, been, etc.) and to have (have, has, had), among others, -ing words (present participles) express ongoing action. Note that it’s the auxiliary verbs that change the tense.

She is running daily now.
She was running every morning.
She will be running tomorrow.
She has been running for three hours.

Gerunds—present participles of verbs—that act as nouns

Verbs that end in -ing can be used as nouns and even subjects of sentences. These are called gerunds.

Running was a regular part of her morning routine.
Running can be hard on your knees.
Eating breakfast can be helpful for many runners.
Sleeping is what I’d rather do.

Gerunds are useful because they point to the essence of an action—the concept or thing-ness of it—rather than the action in performance.

I run (action underway), but running (action named by a gerund) is my passion.

Present participles used as adjectives

In this case, a verbal such as running expresses the concept of action as any verb does. Its job in this case, however, is to modify (describe) a noun or pronoun.

The running girl, an apparition in the morning fog, suddenly disappeared. What kind of girl? A running girl.

The freezing wind chapped the runner’s cheeks. What kind of wind? The freezing wind.

Avoid too many “useless little words” by examining -ing words.

As you can see, -ing words are a valid part of the English language, and we’ve only looked at the basics.

Why avoid them? Why avoid -ing words in fiction (or any) writing? Should you avoid them?

Here’s the thing.

When overused, -ing words in the progressive forms (whether past, present, or future tense) introduce too many weak, little words like am, are, is, was, were, been, have, has, and had—and more.  These are helping verbs that the progressive forms require: I was running, I will be running, I am running, I am going to be running, and (though not often used) I will have been running.

Helping verbs add little meaning on their own; they only serve to bolster or add meaning to the main verb.

Use simple present, past, or future tenses for more concise writing.

Compare:

She is running daily now.
She runs daily now.

She was running every morning.
She ran every morning.

She will be running tomorrow.
She will run tomorrow.
She runs tomorrow.

Choose -ing words carefully and replace with more powerful or descriptive verbs.

When we write the way we talk—which is a good thing in blogging and other types of writing—we tend to use easy, common words.

While telling a story to your friends, you supplement with gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice to get your message across. An image dances across your mind:

Man, she was really running down the street like a maniac!

You describe the action in the progressive because, in your mind, it’s happening at that moment and ongoing (though you know it’s in the past, in this case, so you choose past progressive).

That sentence may be dramatic and effective in casual spoken English. But in writing—even casual writing—“was really running” can be improved.

Use a more powerful verb in the simple past tense

Instead of Man, she was really running down the street like a maniac!

try

She charged down the street like a maniac.

Here’s another example.

Mascara was running down her face as she blew her nose.

Improve that sentence by using simple past tense or a stronger verb:

Mascara ran down her face as she blew her nose.
Mascara smeared her face as she blew her nose.

To identify overuse of -ing words in your writing, try this:

  1. Use the “search” or “find” function in your word processing app (usually under editing).
  2. Use “ing” as your search term (minus the quotation marks).
  3. Examine each -ing word you find.
  4. Ask whether the -ing word is essential to meaning.
  5. Determine whether a simple past (or other) tense might work better.
  6. Decide if a stronger word choice might be the way to go.

Practice identifying -ing words, and eliminate those that introduce too many “little words.” Replace weak or common -ing words with specific, stronger word choices. Your writing will become more concise, clear, and engaging.

Just remember, not all -ing words are bad, and it’s not about tense (all those little words determine tense in the progressive form).

The issue is whether the -ing word (usually the progressive form) is the best choice. And you can think of them as an inspection flag, and decide whether they pass or fail.

Comments are always welcome.

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Photo credit: Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

26 comments… add one
  • Oh my gosh, thanks for this post. I’ve been told they’re not good and could never figure out why! Thanks again!!!!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome Debbie! I figure if one person is wondering about this, then others are too. Glad it’s helpful 🙂

      Reply
  • Great post! This was really helpful. Thank you!!
    Stacey Zink recently posted…Book Giveaway: Saving Yesterday by Jessica KellerMy Profile

    Reply
  • Good information, Leah! Always helpful to know – thanks!

    Reply
  • Delightfully clear explanation. Also, while this may not be technically true, “was running” sounds passive next to “ran.” Simpler is simply more vibrant.
    Sharon Lippincott recently posted…The Book I Wish I’d Written (and May Yet)My Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks Sharon. And I agree–“was running” and other progressive forms sound passive even though they aren’t, and that’s another reason to take a close look at them.

      Reply
  • Leah

    Just great!
    Your simple explanations and appropriate examples made this old grammar-dumb a little bit wiser and happier. Apart from the appropriate usage of ‘ing’ words I also learnt the usefulness of the simple and stronger verbs in writing. And yes, they make writing stronger and pleasurable. Thank you so much, Leah. More of the same please. arun

    Reply
    • Thanks Arun! Very glad this is useful for you. I smiled as I wrote it because university linguistics classes drove me nuts, but they helped me understand the language better. Happy to pass it along. More on the way, I’m sure 🙂

      Reply
  • There are many people who have been wondering about this, mainly because there are so many editors who are adamant on this point. Here is a challenge for said editors: pick up a copy of Joyce, Dickens, or Fitzgerald. Read three pages from any work these authors have written and notice how many progressive tenses they use. Ask yourself, honestly, whether the abundance of progressive tense verbs would be frowned upon by modern conventions. If the answer is yes, which it will be if you are in touch with modern conventions, ask yourself if the modern conventions are of any intrinsic value. I can just imagine an editor today telling Dickens his writing isn’t concise enough for publication. And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    Reply
    • So, I’ll take your bait. 🙂 Yes, I would tell Dickens or Joyce that if I had to publish their material to a goverment website or a newspaper. It depends on the context and the audience. INGs hurt my ears. Edit away, I say! 🙂

      Reply
  • Hi Leah! Thank you for the informative post. Could you please clarify something for me? I realized that I tend to use -ing verbs to add variety to my sentences so they’re not all compound sentences- as a way to get rid of “, which” or “, and”

    For example:
    By October 1977, his photographs consistently illustrated all reviews of major shows in WWD, appearing both on the cover and inside the issue.

    Is this an appropriate way to use the -ing tense? Could you suggest a way to make it better?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Christine,

      There’s really no one perfect way to use -ing words. Mainly, though, we use them to show that something is happening at the time, as a progress; that’s why it’s called the “progressive tense.” For example, “I am writing a reply to your comment right now.”

      So that’s how to judge whether to use it or not. In the case of your sample sentence, the problem isn’t the -ing word so much. It’s that the verb “appearing” is so far away from the subject (photographs) that it’s hard to know what “appearing” is referring to (WWD? Shows?) So it’s a dangling modifier.

      Why not re-do it like this?

      By October 1977, his photographs consistently illustrated all reviews of major shows in WWD and appeared both on the cover and inside the issue.

      It’s just stronger. Or try this:

      By October 1977, his photographs appeared regularly both on the cover and inside WWD to illustrate all reviews of major shows.

      Or

      By October 1977, his photographs illustrated all reviews of major shows in WWD, both on the cover and inside the issue.

      The sky is the limit for variations! And it depends on the context, too. Read it all out loud–listen to yourself carefully or make a recording if you have to–and see how it sounds. That will help.

      Reply
  • Thanks a lot Leah this is very helping to me

    Reply
  • Excellent article. Essential stuff.

    Reply
    • Hi Leah
      It’s a new question from a non-native English speaker : I always get my past tennse sentences wrong. Please can you run a session on Past Tense and how to use them in creative writing – using simples examples. Thank you.
      Arun Debnath.

      Reply
  • Thank you. I will pass this well written article on to my writers’ group this afternoon.

    Reply
  • Thank you. This is extremely useful.

    Reply
  • Thank you. This is extremely useful.

    Reply
  • A helpful article indeed.

    Please can you tell me if the following is acceptable/correct in fiction writing, and why or why not.

    – A primeval cry meshed with the scream spewing from below.

    There is past simple ‘meshed’ and an -ing progressive in the same sentence. I have been told not to mix tenses in a sentence, and also have eradicated almost all the -ing words from my manuscript. But wondered if the above was OK.

    Thanks

    Reply
  • Mascara smeared, she blew her nose. Mascara ran down her cheeks as she blew her nose. Mascara ran down her cheeks. She blew her nose. “Mascara ran. She blew her nose”.

    At the same time, you can search for “ion” words, zombie nouns.

    Reply
  • Thanks for your explanation and example to show the difference between the simple present tense and a gerund.

    “Gerunds are useful because they point to the essence of an action—the concept or thing-ness of it—rather than the action in performance.
    I run (action underway), but running (action named by a gerund) is my passion.”

    All words communicate meaning, and every word has a breath of its own. Words cannot be dismissed as so many “weak, little words like am, are, is… ” as if the number of characters or their auxiliary role makes them less important.

    Words are uttered and scribed. Some are given a turn to plainly state their case, while others seem to struggle for a position. Some are not so sure, and just want to mingle, to listen in and then be heard. Yet others are taking you, the guileless reader, for a stroll in their words.

    Reply
  • Thank you for this. I was wondering about the whole -ing verb thing and could not remember the answer. Very helpful.

    Reply
  • Thank God! I’m 800 words into my book and 400 of them are -ing words. Ha. Maybe not that much but i’m glad to know they can be used in the right context. Attending (i know, gerund) HS in the 70’s, i can’t remember basic rules of English, point being i discovered i enjoyed writing five or so years back but a lot of participle water under the bridge until then. Thanks for the explanation. It was short and concise and i get what your saying. I’m going to try the search suggestion using -ing. Man, i really hope i don’t have 400 of them or i’ll have to rename maybe book to Ing. You reckon there’s a reference for replacing -ing’s with ‘more powerful verbs’? What page on the Internet? 🙂

    Reply

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