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I had to write a scholarship essay, wherein I wrote this sentence:

Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could, trying to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

I sent it to my mom to look over in case I did something stupid, and somehow it ended up being sent to an English major I know vaguely, and I got this reply:

...instead of "trying," I would suggest something like "in order to" or "in an attempt to." This "-past action- , -ing verb" structure is, for more advanced writers, considered a bit weaker.

I trust her judgement on such things implicitly, partially because I've never taken any formal writing/grammar course, partially because I know she's an excellent writer, and, in that particular case, partially because I was stressed out of mind and didn't think to question an all-knowing English major.

But now it occurs to me, why does using that construction make my writing weaker? I realise she qualified her statement, but I happen to use that construction quite a lot because one of my first favorite authors, who massively influenced my writing, does as well. I've never heard this anywhere else.

Could someone please tell me what the problem with that construction is, or where to find out? As you may have gathered from the title itself, my knowledge of writing, style, and grammar is rather eclectic.

Also: I'm posting this on Writers instead of English because I'm interested in the grammar less than I am in its impact on my writing. Forgive me if I've made a mistake. :)

Edit: It seems that most people think trying is the least of this sentence's problems! I thought I'd go ahead and give some more context so people can see exactly what purpose the sentence serves and what-not. I respect all of the answers given based on what I initially posted, but... Well, lesson learned. :) Sorry if I should have done this from the outset. I'll italicise the sentence itself and bold the word in question.

Paragraph:

...Tolkien’s constructed languages and his insight into English so beguiled me that I began spending my afternoons researching his field of philology. I soon learned that it was a subfield of linguistics, which only expanded my curiosity. Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could, trying to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language. As soon as my high school schedule allowed it, I began taking French and Latin, in addition to German, in order to independently gain further insight into the foundations of the English language. I often felt frustrated, however, by my own lack of training in the subject of linguistics and the relative obscurity of the field. Although my interest never waned, it stagnated...

It's hardly my best writing (unfortunately). Funny how you always realise that after it's too late... :(

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It's not a grammar note but personally I think the only reason "in order to" sounds better than "trying to" is because, as Yoda would have it: "Do or do not, there is no try". The word try implies less than full effort and the possiblity of failure making the tryer seem either lazy or inadequate. Just a thought. –  One Monkey Apr 8 '11 at 12:51
    
I agree in principle, but there's a lot of context to this sentence that I left out. "Trying" was meant to imply the frustration and dissatisfaction I found trying to delve my own language in that way, which is, of course, part of why the scholarship committee should give me lots of money so I can stay in college and learn linguistics! So, I ended up using "in an attempt to" to keep that level of meaning, but without the context, "in order to" is better. –  kitukwfyer Apr 8 '11 at 16:17
    
Heh! +1 for the "all-knowing English major." I like it! –  Pete Wilson Apr 10 '11 at 9:31
    
Maybe we can all agree to quit "liking" those ings so much. I blame McDonalds. –  Lynn Beighley Apr 13 '11 at 17:07

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Participles are not -past action- unless they are actually past tense. Your English major friend should learn more about English. "Having tried" would be the past action. What you used was a "verbal adjective." The structure you used is called a participial phrase. While they are valid grammatical structures, they are somewhat antiquated in the modern vernacular and while papers need to be formal, it is not always a good idea to choose a more antiquated structure when other more succinct and easier to read structures exist. In this case, I would have used "in order to" as well as it better conveys the purpose of your decision to read more.

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...That makes a lot of sense. I have had my most "fun" writing compared to the Old Testament before. I'm guessing she said past action because I was talking about the past, but you're right. So, the main reason it's considered weaker comes down to its being less fashionable? Also, thanks for the grammatical explanation! –  kitukwfyer Apr 8 '11 at 3:00
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Participial phrases were very common in Ancient Greek, so the Septuagint and New Testament are full of them. I would guess that their common appearance in ancient texts makes people view them as "old fashioned" and since they are not common in modern speech, that is really the only frame of reference most people have of them. –  MaQleod Apr 8 '11 at 3:11
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I think the past action the friend was referring to was "I read." I think the friend suggested changing the sentence to remove the passive voice. Although "in order to" still doesn't quite do the job. –  patrick Jul 10 '11 at 3:05

Just a few ideas and please don't be let their brusque ungentleness discourage you. You write:

Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could, trying to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

Do you want wishy-washy "trying?" Or prolix "in order to?" How about:

Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

All of your years were "ensuing"; and your work was clearly "over" or "in" them so perhaps:

Later, I read as much as I could to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

Well, of course it was "later," so consider:

I read as much as I could to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

You might want to lean on the idea of "increase;" perhaps "strengthen" or "deepen" is better:

I read as much as I could to deepen my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

Maybe the goal of the reading goes better at the front the sentence:

To deepen my understanding of my own language, I read as much as I could.

Aw, c'mon; I don't think you have a dialect all your own, your own language:

To deepen my understanding of the language, I read as much as I could.

Will any reader buy that you set the goal of understanding the language? How about just saying what you did and what happened?

My understanding of the language deepened as I read as much as I could.

Pretty extravagant to claim that you read as much as you could! You can easily avoid any quantifying; and any raised eyebrows. Perhaps:

My understanding of the language deepened as I read more and more.

Is "understanding" the right verb form? How 'bout something more active:

The more I read, the more deeply I understood the language.

*Uh-oh! 'Deeply' doesn't work all of a sudden, so maybe:

The more I read, the better I understood the language.

Somhow the idea of your reading a lot of stuff has disappeared, so maybe a little drama here:

The more and more I read, the better and better I understood the language.

*Ah, dang it all, I screwed it up by letting the idea of your reading tons and tons It of stuff disappear. OK, let's try it this way:

I read whenever I could. And the more I read, the better I understood the language.

Hey! A little bit of internal rhyme! It couldn't hurt.

Still not the finished sentence you want.

But, as I say, just a few of my thoughts you might use to test your own.

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2  
I appreciate it! :) And for the record I set out to read as much as I could specifically to try and figure out how English works. I was very ineffective, but very earnest. I mean, I read Pride and Prejudice because I heard the language was good, and despite HATING romances. XD Also, not really relevant, but everyone does have an idiolect, or their own specific dialect. Not making it up. :) –  kitukwfyer Apr 10 '11 at 13:58

Part of the problem comes from the fact that you have "ensuing" followed by "trying" — which makes the sentence sing-songy and metrically weak.

But as it stands the sentence is wordy and therefore weak. Certainly you could improve it by dropping the "trying" altogether:

Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could, to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

Let's try to hack off a few more words:

After that I read as much as I could, to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language.

But we can still do better:

After that, to improve my skill in English, I read a great deal.

You'll notice I substituted "English" for "my own language"; if your own language is not English, substitute whatever language applies.

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"Over the ensuing years I read as much as I could to increase my knowledge and understanding of my own language." - don't think the comma after could is necessary there. Also I'd suggest "After that I read a great deal to improve my English skills" to avoid extra punctuation and clean up the sentence. –  justkt Apr 8 '11 at 12:54
    
@justkt: The comma is optional. But I cheated a little by leaving it in (which I agree is weaker), since the intermediate edits are just steps toward my final suggestion. I believe it's strongest to end with the simple action clause rather than a meandering explanation of the action. –  Robusto Apr 8 '11 at 13:03
    
I have a problem with this, although I accept that your first two edits are better than my original, the last one changes the meaning from my original sentence rather drastically! I agree that simplicity rams home a point better than prettified complexity, but it's best to make sure you ram home the right point. ;) –  kitukwfyer Apr 8 '11 at 17:34

I see this as a matter of style that is a generational perspective. When I took my writing lessons in high school and college, Strunk & White's Elements of Style book was well-known and well-regarded. I also kept William Zinsser's On Writing Well close at hand for many years.

In those books, short, definite statements hold a lot of expressive power, especially when mixed with sentences that are longer by necessity. Brevity, it is argued, forces the reader to slow down, or even stop, and consider your point.

With your sentence, the sing-song quality establishes a tone and flow that seems personal, but also timid. It's as if you're worried that someone who knows you well might contradict you or plague you with mincing what-ifs, so you mute the main idea and qualify the strong words.

Here's an idea of what I mean. My first sentence below carries my sense on what's happening in yours. The second is how I'd edit it, once I read the first back to myself:

I prefer the general idea of leaving out words that do no meaningful work, and using one word in place of two.

I omit words that do no work once I find them.

In a like manner, I might try changing your sentence like so:

Since that time, I have read as much as I can to increase my knowledge and understanding of my language.

Or even:

I now read as much as I can to improve my grasp of language.

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Both the sentence that you selected for special attention and the fuller excerpt from your opus, that you so considerately added that we might begin to understand your context, is a bit too prolix.

By which I mean: it's all too wordy.

"Over the ensuing years," doesn't really say anything. What you're looking for here is a conjunction to join the previous thought with the new thought. So just use a conjunction

"So I read as much I could..."

Your English Major friend is right. The next bit isn't weak because it's a verbal adjective or antiquarian, it's weak because it's passive. The construction she referred to is your use of the past tense, "I read," followed by an adverbial participial clause. (That's a mouthful!) In English, when you use the participle to form a clause that functions as an adverb you end up using the passive voice.

Have you heard writers advise people not to use too many adverbs? That's partly because adverbs shift the reader's attention away from the subject. In this case, "trying" modifies "read." The last half of the sentence is all about the verb, the act of reading, and not about the subject, you! The passive voice does the same kind of thing; it minimizes the importance of the subject. Keep the focus on the subject and keep the voice active.

What you want to say is that you read a lot. You also want to say something about why you read so much. Just say that.

"I wanted to learn more about the English language, so I read as much as I could."

It's not showy, but it's clear.

Prolixity can be a used to good effect, but it's a dangerous trap. It can give a piece of writing an "academic feel" (although academic writing is rarely good writing), or it can give a piece a sense of style. Jane Austen, for example, did it well. Many others do not. The biggest danger of prolixity is that it can lead you to use the wrong words, which just confuses your writing.

"…his insight into English so beguiled me" Beguiled? You were deceived? Diverted from your aims? Or intrigued? Enchanted?

"...and the relative obscurity of the field..." Linguistics is not obscure. Difficult maybe, but not obscure. Or did you mean that linguistics is opaque?

Using the passive voice can also lead to prolixity: "I began taking French and Latin, in addition to German..." instead of, "I took French, Latin and German."

I really do get a sense of style from your prose. You've got a voice and it's a good one. For instance, I really liked, "...I began spending my afternoons researching...." It puts me back in a world where my mornings were not my own; it's evocative. But it's passive and so it loses urgency. Beginning to do something is not as powerful as simply doing it. "I spent my afternoons researching"

"Although my interest never waned, it stagnated..." I liked this as well. And it's active! so much better than, "although my interest never began waning, it began stagnating."

Keep writing! I think you've got talent and you clearly have drive. Good luck with the scholarship!

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Thanks! I agree with you about my sentences being weaker, but it was my way of conveying hesitancy, confusion, and eventual frustration. I began taking French and Latin on a half-hopeful whim, but I wondered if it was a waste of time. I didn't take them because I was sure it would be useful...Also, I've found that linguistics IS obscure. Only one college in Virginia (my native state) offers it as a major, many people haven't heard of it, and if they have, they often don't know what it is. :/ Still, I appreciate it, and I'll make sure I ONLY use those constructions when I want them. :) –  kitukwfyer Jul 10 '11 at 15:33

I think I would've written the same thing you did. As I re-read your version several times, I began to feel that there's a jump after the comma. To try to see it more clearly, I distilled the two versions down:

"I read ... trying to..." versus "I read... in order to...".

And it does feel like a bit of a mismatch in the original version. I'n not an expert and can't say much beyond that, but I can sense their point.

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I'm glad I'm not the only one who uses that construction, and while I agree that on its own it doesn't necessarily help a sentence, and the one I wrote isn't the greatest anyway, I know, I still don't wholly get how/why it's a bad thing. Possibly a distinction between fiction-writing (where I picked it up) and essay-writing...? A jump like that can be useful in the right context...Thanks for answering, though. I was beginning to feel a bit unloved after half an hour. :p –  kitukwfyer Apr 8 '11 at 3:11
    
I find "in order to" kind of clumsy. When I read "in order to" I expect the subect to be the deadweight "one." One writes like this in order to sound authoritative. Yech. –  patrick Jul 10 '11 at 3:23

I have heard on several occasions that it is the gerund that makes the -ing "weak" and should be avoided. The argument, I suppose, is due to the fact that gerunds are inherently imprecise because they have multiple meanings and fit multiple categories. They're verb-like, noun-like, and adjective-like... and present-participles which also use the -ing suffix can act like adverbs and adjectives and are completely different than gerunds. It does seem odd to allow -ing to be a past-tense gerund while simultaneously saying only present-participles have -ing (past-participles are -ed, -en, and similar).

In reality I suspect they hate gerunds because it makes it difficult for them to map a sentence they can understand the meaning of so easily.

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