Apologies for the long absence – I have been busy with work (I mean the paying kind!), holidays and other projects, but I still mean to keep Andy’s Writing Tips going, not least for those of you who are preparing for exams in May or June. I can’t write as frequently as I did a month or so ago, but I’ll try and post something useful at least a couple of times a week.
So, let’s get back to business with something to improve your sentence variety. ‘Sentence variety’, if you didn’t know, is a key term on the marking criteria that examiners use to grade your exam. Using a variety of simple, compound and complex sentences appropriately will help you score well on this, as will varying the subject of your sentence (that is, not starting every sentence with, for example, ‘I’), or starting sentences with adverbs or prepositional phrases (slowly, at the back of the garden). But for top marks, you’re going to have to master such constructions as the participle phrase. Don’t stress – they’re not difficult! You’ve probably used them before, but it will help to become conscious of when you’re using them, and perhaps to use them a bit more.
A participle (or participial) clause is a clause with a new verb but the same subject that precedes or, more commonly, follows, the main clause.
The man raced down the hill as fast as he could, spinning his arms wildly as he went.
In the above sentence, the main clause is ‘The man raced down the hill’, and the participle clause is ‘spinning his arms wildly’. The verb ‘spinning’ still has the same subject as the main clause, ‘he’. Participle clauses are useful when you want to describe two actions that someone is doing at the same time, as in the example above, or one that happens as a result of another, as in:
She pulled the trigger of the gun, releasing a jet of cold water.
Sometimes you can use a participle clause to describe an action that closely precedes or follows another:
Peeling the skin off with care, she fed the elephant calf another banana.
Notice that the above example places the participle clause first, which is fine!
The examples so far have all been active participle clauses, so have used ‘-ing’ verbs, but you can also have a passive participle clause like the one below (obviously a banana doesn’t peel anything, but is itself peeled.)
Peeled carefully, the banana was thrown into the elephant calf’s yawning mouth.
One common error to be especially wary of, however, is the so-called dangling participle. This is a participle clause which does not share the subject of the main clause, as in this example:
Watching with evident delight, the banana was thrown into the elephant calf’s yawning mouth.
Who is watching in this sentence? The writer means the elephant was watching, but has actually said that the banana is watching – which is impossible (unless you believe the banana is both sentient and suicidal!) The dangling participle is a mistake waiting to befall the careless writer – not unlike that banana skin and the careless walker…
Participle clauses, nevertheless, are a useful way to improve the variety and complexity of your sentences.
Describe a man climbing a mountain. Use participle clauses to describe his skilled – or not so skilled – actions.
Picture from http://www.can-i-compost-it.com/can-i-compost-banana-skins/ . And yes, you can compost them, although I have my reservations about ‘compost’ as a verb!