How to use gerunds and participial phrases in sentence writing

The dictionary definition of a participle is; ‘a verb ending in –‘ing’ (present) or –‘ed’, -‘en’, -d, -t, -n, or -ne (past) that functions as an adjective, modifying a noun or pronoun. A participial phrase consists of a participle plus modifier(s), object(s), and/or complement(s)’. 

An earlier column discussed gerunds which, basically, are verbs with the ‘ing’ ending. This could be a bit confusing but there is a clear difference between gerunds and participial phrases. In sentences, gerundstake the place of nouns while participles, as earlier stated here, function like adjectives

If a participial phrase is to be used at the beginning of a sentence, the rule is that it must make specific reference to the subject. Yet reading newspapers or posts on social media, one notes this rule is sometimes inadvertently broken.

The result is that it robs a sentence of clarity. For instance; Walking along the boulevard, I saw an old man accompanied by two youngsters.

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The participial in this case is ‘walking’, but to whom, specifically, does it refer? Is it the old man, or the person stating the fact?

The subject in this case being the old man, the participialmust refer to him in a way that leaves no doubt. Thus, it is proper to write; He saw an old man accompanied by two youngsters walking along the boulevard.

Land dispute

On any given day, there are a number of sentences, phrases and captions in national newspapers that puzzle. When such sentences are not a direct assault on grammar, they are full of ambiguity. To put matters in context, let us pick a few captions and headlines for illustration.

From one of the dailies, I picked the following caption below a photo of two car shells: Two police vehicles burnt in Kathangachwe village in Tharaka North Sub County yesterday when they intervened in a land dispute between the locals and those from neighbouring Igembe South in Meru County.

The question is; how could police vehicles possibly intervene in a dispute? There is an element of inattention to detail since the vehicles were only used to ferry the police officers who went to intervene in the dispute. The verb ‘intervened’ is used here to make reference to the object yet it should refer to the subject.

In another example, while the headline read; Speeding police car kills pupil, hurts two. The story beneath read; the Tuesday evening accident involved a speeding private car belonging to an administration policeman. It is absolutely impossible to reconcile the headline and the quoted text.

Just because a car belongs to a police officer does not make it a police car. Someone who merely looked at the headline would be left cursing the police for the fatal accident, yet that is clearly not the case. This emphasizes the need to convey information in as clear manner as possible to avoid misinformation or what is now known as fake news.

Warring communities

Too often in newspaper headlines, we come across the phrase; They were protesting against. Indeed, as the rancorous debate on the 8 per cent value added tax increase on fuel went on in Parliament on Thursday last week, word had it that the MPs were ‘protesting against the increase’; that it would adversely affect the common man. Going by this, it follows that if people or an individual can ‘protest against’ something, they can also ‘protest for’. Would that be grammatically correct?

To ‘protest’ is to express objection, dissent. Basically, it is to go ‘against’ what one feels not to be right or acceptable. ‘Protest’ and ‘against’ used together amounts to tautology (repetition). We can correctly say; Kenyans have protested the increase in value added tax on fuel or Kenyans are against the increase in value added tax on fuel. It is only ‘demonstrations’ (parades or marches) that can be in support of, or against something.

Yet another story: Tensions in Nakuru County were high’ violated grammar rules. Ideally, when we refer to tension as a noun, we should avoid adding‘s’ to get the plural form of the word: Tension in Nakuru County was high.

“Tension continues to build between the two warring communities over Mau evictions”. In the verb form, the act of exerting pressure to make, say car suspension springs taut, is called ‘tensioning’. Whoever is involved in the work, ‘tensions’ the springs.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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