The Rules of Writing: No Gerunds?

While doing research recently for an ESL student, I came across another “rule of writing”, to wit:

Don’t use gerunds; they make your writing weak.

To qualify as a gerund a word must be:

  1. a verb with an “ing” suffix
  2. that performs the job of a noun.

Take these sentences as examples:

I like hiking. (The gerund acts as the object of the sentence.)

Hiking is fun. (The gerund acts as the subject of the sentence.)

Now, I guess you could eliminate the gerund in the first sentence by saying “I like to hike”, but I don’t see much difference between the two statements. I think your choice would depend more on what your character’s natural speech patterns are than on any “rule”. (And if, like me, your manuscripts run over the recommended length for your genre, every little added “to” means you have to cut another word―a fate worse than death!)

Rewriting the second sentence as “To hike is fun” makes it sound formal. It gives me the feeling I’m reading a foreign translation rather than common American parlance.


And here’s the other, more important thing: in every article I read, the proponents of the “no gerund rule” were really objecting to sentences like this:

I was hiking in the woods.

But “hiking”, in this instance, fails to meet the qualifications for a gerund. It ends in “ing”, but it’s not acting as a noun. It’s part of the verb construction, specifically the past progressive tense.

So what the “no gerunds rule” proponents are trying to say is: there’s a “no progressive tenses rule”. By various examples, they also declare that there’s a “no conditional tenses rule”, and/or a “no perfect/pluperfect tenses rule”. In other words, write only in simple present, simple past, or imperfect tense.

How boring!

The reasoning, from what I gather, is that all these other tenses fall into a subset of the “active/passive rule”. For a “more active” sentence, they’d encouraged you to write it this way:

I hiked in the woods.

However, the rewrite doesn’t give me the same anticipation factor. If you start a dialogue with “I was hiking in the woods…”, I’m immediately looking for a story to follow. “I hiked in the woods” is more self-contained, an answer to the question, “What did you do today?” It doesn’t give me a sense of more to come. So for me, it’s a less appealing choice, and even less so if you’re creating a scene of rising tension.

(See what I did there? In the last sentence, I used three words that end in “ing” and not one of them is a gerund. Don’t fall into the same trap the “no gerunds rule” folks did!)

In my opinion, most of the “rules of writing” we see today have nothing to do with writing correctly. Instead, they are style choices that individuals make and choose to follow in their own works. They are, in effect, guidelines for that writer, not rules for all writers.

In particular, the “no gerunds rule” is one that seems to have a limited practical application. And I’d say the same for the “no (whatever) tense rules”. They’re like the Oxford comma; if you don’t want to use them, then don’t. But there are going to be times when clarity (or word count) depends upon it.

When it comes to writing, my philosophy is always:

Choose the best word for the job.

It applies whether you use a noun, verb, gerund, adverb, adjective, dialogue tag, or a word you made up to bring your story’s world to life. Choose the best word and your readers will be so bowled over by your writing, they won’t stop to wonder whether that word qualifies as a gerund or past progressive tense.

So, what style guidelines do you prefer? What’s your writing philosophy?

For an easy read on gerunds, visit the SproutEnglish blog.

For more on verb conjugation, see

ASK GIFF (or: a real live Grammar Nerd wants to answer your questions

Got a grammar question? Got a sentence that needs something, but you’re not exactly sure what? Tenses don’t jive? Can’t tell if you need a colon or a semicolon?

Well, I’m that kid in school who was always “first hand up” when it was time to diagram sentences. Yeah, a real grammar nerd. Grammar makes me happy, and misuse of it drives me nuts!

So I’m offering you the chance to pose your grammar questions here. Now, I don’t mean your technical questions – there are plenty of on-line resources for that, and my favorites are listed on the “Writers’ Resources” page here.

But sometimes the technical resources (aka “the rules”) don’t help a lot in real life. I remember trying one of the “grammar checkers” and, after it had eliminated the words it didn’t like (including “complex” words, which it defined as any word over 3 syllables — simplicity, anyone?), my 14-word sentence was reduced to “Brian have home.” Not quite the idea I was trying to put across.

So I’m looking for a specific question about your sentence or paragraph that needs help. Something you know isn’t quite right, but you just can’t seem to find the answer that unravels your confusion and makes it work.

To give you an idea of how I might answer, here are a couple of real examples from real people I’ve worked with (used with their consent, of course):

Question #1:  I have two versions of this sentence, and I need to know which one is better:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappearing into the darkness as he walked down the beach.
  2. She watched him amble through the gate and as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

My Response:  In the first sentence, the tenses don’t agree. It should either be:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappear into … OR

  2. She watched him ambling through the gate and disappearing into …

But I don’t think the first sentence, even with the correct tenses, reads all that well. It seems to say he ambled through the gate as he walked down the beach. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind.

On the other hand, your second sentence already has agreement between the tenses and it’s easy to see just what you mean. However, I’d suggest eliminating “and” and using a semicolon instead. Why, you ask? Because, though the two clauses are related, each one has its own subject. In the first clause, it’s “she”, while in the second one it’s “he”.

So for me, the optimum sentence would be: She watched him amble through the gate; as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

Question #2:  I’m having trouble with this sentence, and can’t figure out how to make it better:

He had a square face with a wide nose and a strong jaw-line, his dark-brown hair pronouncing his warm blue eyes.

Response:  I understand exactly what you mean to say. The problem is that “pronounce” as a verb means “to say”. You could go with “his dark-brown hair made his warm blue eyes more pronounced” or “his dark-brown hair played up his warm blue eyes” (or even “the warmth in his blue eyes”, if the other sounds too sing-song to you.)

So what do you say?   Want some help with a sentence, a comma, a verb? Send your question through the ABOUT ME/CONTACT page; I’ll post at least one every week (anonymously if you like), and give it my best shot!

Oh, goody! GRAMMAR!!!!

Tuesday Trivia #4: What’s in a Name?

Today’s trivia concerns some new words I’ve learned during my research, as well as one that’s often misunderstood.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to match the words A through D to definitions 1 through 4:

A.  Porter
B.  Hogan
C.  Laager
D.  Kiva

1.  A camp defended by a circular formation of wagons.
2.  An underground chamber used by Native Americans for ceremonies
3.  A traditional Native American dwelling made of logs and mud
4.  An Irish drink made from malt that’s been charred

Now, now, no googling. Go with your gut! I’ll post the correct answers Wednesday evening.

UPDATE: The correct answers are:

A4, B3, C1, D2

How many did you get right?

Grammar: Pet Peeves

Every writer and reader I know has a short (or long) list of pet peeves when it comes to language. My list, I’ll admit, is pretty long, but I’m feeling pretty focused today, so I’ll just talk about two.

I see a lot of query letters and synopses on the sites I follow, and I’ve noticed that many aspiring authors (younger people especially) have fallen into the trap of writing “should of”, “would of”, and “could of”.

I tell you frankly that it makes me grit my teeth.

Now I know that the sound of “should of” is about as close to “should’ve” as you can get, but our educational system is failing the new generation if they haven’t been taught to recognize these sounds as contractions of “should have”, “would have”, and “could have”.

Think about it: what would “should of” mean anyway? (Should = must) + (of = related to). So “should of” means “must related to”. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

This simple mnemonic may help you to remember the right spelling: Should have used should’ve.

Now much worse, as far as I’m concerned, is “irregardless”. Lately it seems that everywhere I go, I’m hearing or reading “irregardless”. And it makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

There’s a question in some circles about whether “irregardless” is even a word, but we won’t get into that here. It’s commonly used, and that’s enough to make it seem legitimate.

Let’s take it apart. We’ll start with the base word, “regard”. The prefix “ir” means “not”. The suffix “less” means “without”. The result is “not without regard”, and the combination of two negatives brings you right back to “regard”. What you wind up saying is that you will consider the argument or statement that came before. Yet no one I’ve heard use it in the past ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty years has meant to agree with a point.

The word that negates the previous statement or argument, is “regardless”.

Regardless says: “All the stuff and fluff you said/heard before is meaningless, and I’m about to tell you why.” (Although it does say it a little more nicely than that, or at least more professionally.)

I believe the confusion arises because “irrespective” is a synonym for “regardless”, and people have created a mash-up of the two words. But if “irregardless” has crept into your vocabulary, my best advice is to squash that bug the next time you say or write it!

(Unless, of course, you’re writing a poem and need a word to rhyme with “irrigationless”. Which again brings me to a mnemonic: Don’t irrigate regardless.)

Now, what bugs you about grammar?