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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Loving the Present Participle

Snow sliding off the roof
Of course any reader or lover of books, like any writer, will also love words. That would seem to go without saying. (Obviously, it doesn't, judging from the number of writers who say it in interviews.) I’ve been thinking more specifically of late about different parts of speech and my feelings for them. Mathematicians sometimes admit to loving certain numbers. Is this strange? Oh, well! If I be strange, let me be unashamed!

Nouns. The fascination of naming. So many human beings begin speech with names. Not all—a few are phrase learners, and I wonder what other differences, if any, divide these two groups of learners—but most of us, when we uttered our first words, spoke names. Mama. Dada. Ball. Dog. My son spoke these words, adding towel, toast and other names quickly to the list. When we went to a theatre, and there was a fire scene in the movie, he identified it as “Hot!”  Was that for him an adjective or a noun? Obviously, it was neither, but it may well have been a name.

Verbs. One little boy I took care of for a while was a phrase-learner. “Throw it!” “Get it!” “Jump!” Verbs were his thing. He was all action!

Adjectives and Adverbs. Oh, the love affair young writers embark upon when first they learn to modify their nouns and verbs! How intoxicating the sense of power, adding detail upon detail to a world being recreated with words! Learning to say more with less requires reining in the power  so as not to let words run away with the writing, but adjectives and adverbs will always have a place, since the world itself is modified and modifying itself every moment.

I could go on here to say something about pronouns and about conjunctions, seemingly indispensable in the minds of English speakers, although some languages manage without them. If, for instance, a verb is already conjugated to “agree” with a particular pronoun, why is the pronoun needed? It is redundant. Americans love their pronouns, however, especially the first-person singular! And conjunctions. No one can ever study formal logic and see conjunctions naively again. Two statements can be made one after the other. Conjoining them adds nothing. (Either separate or conjoined, in either speaking or in writing, one must come before the other.) And it is such a shock to be told that and and but are logically equivalent! The choice between the two is more an editorial comment on a truth claim than part of a bare statement.

But I want to cut short my survey of parts of speech and get to my main point for today, which is that I have realized only recently (perhaps because it has been true only recently?) that I have an inordinate fondness for the present participle. I was looking back over titles I’d given various posts on this blog and found these words: racing; percolating; beginning, singing, ringing, resolving and hoping; reading; wrapping [up]; getting [back in touch]; remembering; etc., etc., etc. Even before making that discovery I had been reading and thinking about poetry, and it struck me that the present participle is vital to modern poetry, because it is vital to capturing a momentary impression. And suddenly I realized how much I love this part of speech!

Naming is irresistible. We human beings love to give names to objects, to places, to babies, and to each other. There are names we love to say, names that evoke memories or mystery. At the same time, names can lead us astray. When we know something’s name, we are tempted to think we know more about it than we do. When we give an abstract name, we think we have tidily boxed up an idea and can now put it, with its label, on its “proper” place on the idea shelf. Do you think you know who I am as a person or what I think on any particular topic because you have labeled me a “liberal”? Or because I have a “business”? Or because I’m a “philosopher”?

The world is not static; the world is complex and perpetually in flux. Nouns represent pieces of the world by oversimplifying. They take pieces out of context and freeze them in time. Most suspicion of language, when you read it closely, is suspicion of nouns.

No part of speech, however, is propaganda-proof. Verbs, like nouns, adjectives, and/or [!] conjunctions can slant a report one way or another. Did someone boast something or admit it? Did someone else retreat or flee? Did the candidate grin, smile, or smirk? So too the present participle can be used for otherwise unstated editorial purposes: “Puffing out his chest and tilting his chin upward, to a distant corner of the room, the uninvited guest replied....” Don’t you just want to kick him out yourself?
Winter sun shining

Still, I love this part of speech. The past tense tells us what is supposedly over and done with (as if anything ever is); the present tense holds forth an artificially static snapshot, a “state” of events; and the future tense makes claims that can be redeemed only when the future arrives. The present participle, by contrast, gives us a moment still in motion, as it’s sliding by, tumbling forward, and the word doesn’t try to hide or deny the movement, the slip-sliding.

“The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away,” sang Paul Simon, and we heard him and sang along and said, “Yeah!” 

Poet Jim Harrison used a present participle for the title of his poetry collection, Saving Daylight. There is a poem with that title in the book, another called “Becoming,” another called “Adding It Up.”

Who can ever forget the first line of the poem that begins,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer...
-      William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Do you need more than that? Loving the present participle, I rest my case and relax in the weeds.

Clouds drifting, floating, sighing


Bettie said...

I may share this with my grad class when we get to our writing workshop session. I enjoyed reading your writing.

P. J. Grath said...

Hey, Bettie! I haven't even gotten the e-mail notification yet of your comment, so it was a surprise! Please overlook all the changes in font. I did not intend them and don't know where they came from. Do have an idea how to eliminate them in future. Something to try, anyway.

dmarks said...

Somehow I am made to think of lines from the "Song of Hiawatha"

"Now seemed floating, now seemed flying,
Coming nearer, nearer, nearer."

Great post.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, dmarks, thank you for sending me back to Longfellow! Neither his style nor his voice are much admired these days, but there is some real beauty there. Turning to the wedding portion of the poem, it struck me that 'wedding' is a present participle shoved into a noun box. The moment--!

dmarks said...

Click here for a splendid musical rendition of "Song of Hiawatha", containing the passage I mentioned earlier.

Kathy said...

Oh what a wonderful post! I, too, am now in love with the Present Participle. (However, before reading this blog I could not have recalled what a "present participle" might be. Thanks for the grammar prompt!)

P. J. Grath said...

I'll click when I'm on a faster than dial-up connection, dmarks. Thanks for the link.

Kathy, I could use a few prompts myself on other parts of speech. The word 'gerund' comes to mind--and then the mind goes blank. Happy to have you share my enthusiasm for those -ing words, though. And thanks for stopping by.

Alan Mattlage said...

I suspect this says something about me, but I find myself disliking certain parts of speech at least in my own writing. When editing, I frequently find the past perfect form of verbs when a simple past tense would do just fine. It's not that I especially like the past tense, it's just the the past perfect is, well, not so perfect. Prepositions are just plain troublesome. And then there's the use of parentheses. (Oh, how my first drafts over use them!) I should stay off the topic of punctuation, though. So many people have oddly strong feelings about that -- politics, religion, and puctuation!

P. J. Grath said...

Prepositions are troublesome, aren't they? That's a good word for them, Alan. Yes, punctuation is a very hot topic, too (and I know what you mean about parentheses--and also the long dash, often a pair of them used instead of parentheses), but I won't go (too far) in that direction today, either!

You've brought up an interesting question for me: What parts of speech do I edit out when moving from draft to final copy? This morning I did a final edit on a post for my stillness blog and now wish I'd read your comment first so that I could have set the Word document to trace changes made. The final version, anyway, is here:

Gerry said...

Oh my - I did "click here" and was very surprised indeed. Thank you dmarks.

PJ, I would write a long comment about my favorite parts of speech but it's sort of a personal subject and I'm feeling self-conscious. I think I'll just stay here sipping my coffee and enjoying the snow sliding off the roof.

P. J. Grath said...

Sipping and enjoying--way to go, Gerry!

dmarks said...

Gerry: Glad you liked it. The singer is Maddy Prior, from the folk-rock band "Steeleye Span". Their name rhymes with Steely Dan, but they are nothing like Steely Dan. They are nothing like what you tend to think of when you hear the term "folk rock" either. Much of their music consists of very old English folk tunes partially updated with more modern electric instruments. They are worth checking out.

The "Hiawatha" section, good as it is, is actually my least favorite section of that particular album. I just think that the other sections are even better. said...

I think your preference for the present particle is may be because you're a person of "action" so the present particle is a good fit.

I love extraneous punctuation -- especially the dash -- as it transfers onto paper my manner of speaking. And it captures excitement in a way that the parentheses does not.

Extraneous punctuation is one of my guilty pleasures -- especially the ellipsis and dashes! (And exclamation points...)

P. J. Grath said...

Action? Moi? I think of myself more as a contemplative slug. If it weren't for Sarah, would I ever move at all?

Dashes ARE exciting--and they don't invite a reader to skip past whatever is between them, as do parentheses. Parentheses seem to say, "This could have been left out, but I couldn't resist sticking it in."

Then there is typeface. I love italics. I really love italics. There's supposed to be a way to use them in comments, too, but I can never figure it out, and hence this awful BOLDFACE, which always looks as if the writer is YELLING at the reader--and that's not what I intend at all!

Alan Mattlage said...

You can create italics by simply putting an "i" in brackets before the word and an "/i". See the not about HTML tags below the "Leave your comment" window. Italics are indeed great.

Alan Mattlage said...

Sorry that my last comment was incomplete. I'm in a rush for no reason today. The "i" in brackets goes before the italicized word and the "/i" in brackets goes after the italicized word.

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, Alan, I am going to [i]try/i italicizing according to your directions and [i]see if I can do it!/i