…ing verbs!

I just started a book by a prolific author whom I admire greatly (as a person) and before the first chapter is finished I realised it’s going to be a DNF (Did Not Finish).

The plot might be engaging, I don’t know, I haven’t gotten far enough in. What’s putting me off is the *over-the-top descriptive flowery language and the …ing verbs in past tense. This is a massive pet peeve of mine, and recently I’ve become stunned how many writers use …ing verbs in past tense writing.

For those who are unsure, this is an example of …ing verb usage in past tense writing;

Sally sat on the horse, tugging her blonde hair, and watched Jim.

The …ing verb is tugging.

Why does it irritate me? Because it rips me (the reader) from past tense (Sally SAT on the horse), into present tense (TUGGING her blonde hair), then dumps me back in past (and WATCHED Jim).

Now the thing is, …ing verbs in past tense are not wrong… technically. Writers can use them. But they really shouldn’t! It’s a juxtaposition that jogs the reader from a comfortable flow and reminds them they are reading, not living, the story.

They are also not necessary. There are plenty of ways the writer can get around using …ing verbs in a past tense narrative. Take the example above. I could say;

Sally sat on the horse and watched Jim. She sighed and tugged her blonde hair.


Sally sat on the horse and tugged her blonde hair. She only had eyes for Jim.

All it takes is a bit of reworking and I’ve kept the tense firmly in the past. I’ve also conveyed a little more about the emotion of the scene with a few choice words.

Here’s a great article on …ing verbs that looks into their good, bad and ugly sides, and is well worth a read.

Writers everywhere, please be careful when using …ing verbs!

*more on the overuse of descriptive language in another rant 😁

29 thoughts on “…ing verbs!

  1. Overly descriptive and flowery language about actions and scenery and blahdeblahdeblah is the exact reason I can’t stand Jane Austen books and other such writers, which, as an English teacher is a huge faux pas on my part . But I can’t deal with it! I get what you are saying. I think we should be kept in the magic book bubble and not be dragged out by the author’s need to be a moron.
    She said, sipping her coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a non-native English speaker but avid reader, and I had NO IDEA about what you just explained. I love grammar so this is a big discovery for me!
    Although I have to ask you a question: how do you make sure that the reader gets the idea that both actions happen at the same time AND in the past, without the use of -ing? In the rewritten examples you gave, I have the impression that these actions happen one after another, not at the same time.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks and by no means take my words as gospel; I’m no English teacher or anything, I just know what irks me.
      To suggest something happening at the same time and in past tense, I use “as”… for example;
      Sally sat on the horse and watched Jim as she tugged a lock of her hair.
      Still stays in the past but tells the reader she’s doing this and this at the same time as this.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Ah! That’s a satisfying answer for me, thanks!
        Well you might not be a teacher, but you’re a writer, and writers “feel” the language, so your level of expertise is very high indeed 😉 And if, as a native speaker, writer and reader, it irks you, there should be a good reason for that!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. After years of editing, I can tell you publishers don’t like “as” constructions or ing-verbs. They will accept both, though (when used judiciously) so there is clarity as well as sentence structure variation.

        The problem with “as” is people often use it wrong. “She laughed as she sipped her drink.” These things can’t happen at the same time. You would think that’s obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this error occurs.

        The reason the ing-construction is an issue is as you described. But readers will only tolerate a string of ed-construction descriptions for so long before they sound sing-songy. (Another reason for shorter, stronger descriptions rather than lengthy purple prose.) That’s why publishers let a few ing-phrases through without complaint.

        It doesn’t bother me too much (and I’m fanatical about sentence construction) as long as it doesn’t happen often. Sounds to me like the story you read abuses it, and that’s too bad. (Especially because the writer will suffer for it. But the editor is equally responsible. Or maybe even more so, if he or she changed the author’s voice for sentence variation reasons. That’s happened to me before, and it’s infuriating.)

        Great post, Jess.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Good to hear a real editor weigh in. I’d like to say I can’t believe writers would be so stupid as to misuse “as” but nah, I can believe anything. Unfortunately I’ve been finding these types of errors a lot more in books, and I hate to think it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of indie books recently. This suggests these independent writers aren’t bothering to go through the whole process of proofing and editing their work. And this cheapens self-published books and does us all a disservice. Sigh.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. The worst problem is modifiers, but that’s a topic for another post.

        I’d like to think the errors you’ve been seeing don’t equate to laziness or ability w/rt indie writers, but I suspect they do. Like you said, it diminishes the group as a whole. I hope these were exceptions to the rule.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t like being pulled out of tense, and yes, that can be a pet peeve of mine too. But I am a fan of descriptive language. I love dense prose but it’s rarely done these days. Certain writers excel at it. I love a lot of old books for that reason.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When it’s done right it can be great. This wasn’t. It was done so much over the top that it pulled me right out of the story. I’ll do a post on it soon.
      And don’t worry Mae; it’s hell not you or your fabulous books!! I adore your writing 🤗

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Also the placing of the ‘ing’ verb. The first sentence gives the impression that Sally was tugging on the horse’s blonde hair. BTW, have you seen my last Peaceful Rampage post on John Lennon? There’s a dedication you might like.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I no nothing of the rules of sentence construction, but I find your objection to sally tugging at her hair, just hair-splitting. I learned the English language from reading authors from a bygone age, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Zane Grey, et al. I finished school at age 14, but I’ve had many hundreds of letters published in many different newspapers, so my writing must be, at worst, passable. So ‘sally sat on her horse’. What was she doing at the same time? ‘tugging at her hair’, not just one tug, as you seem to suggest, but a continuing process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said, it’s not technically incorrect to use ing verbs, it just doesn’t read well and drops the reader into present tense in a piece of past tense prose. Good writers should know how to convey the same message without having to disrupt the reader’s flow 🤗


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