Tool #6 Take it Easy on the -ings

Updated: Jan 13

In my last post, "Watch Those Adverbs," I discussed why it's essential to be aware of adverbs in your advertisements because they can be redundant or worse, insult your reader. While words ending in -ing aren't as abrasive as adverbs, there are a few reasons why you need to watch those -ing words.

What's an -ing Word?

First of all, what's an "-ing" word? There are so many syntactic variations of -ing words, and you may get overwhelmed by this grammar lesson. However, I will try my best to make it as painless as possible.

In his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark explains that too many -ing words in a sentence may not just change the form of the word, but what the sentence suggests as well. However, don't assume that you need to deprive your posts of -ing words. Instead, use them appropriately. Let me show you an example.

When to Use the -ing Words

If you want your reader to feel as though the action is happening immediately, use the progressive form of the verb. Take the previous sentence as an example of this. The auxiliary verb "is" is in the present tense, so "happening" is a present participle. All this "being present" can create a sense of urgency.

So, here's my catch-phrase for a legal firm: "Making the right decision under pressure is stressful, but fortunately our qualified staff is here to help you!" "Making" in this sentence is modifying "you." Therefore, you know that, while this is a difficult time, making things work in your favor is a top priority for this law firm. Make sense?

When Not to Use -ing Words

So why does Clark tell us not to overload our writing with -ing words?

Well, for one he tells us that anytime you add -ing you also add another syllable count to your sentence. I could have written that sentence like this: "Well, for one, he tells us that anytime you add -ing you are adding another syllable count to your sentence" In the previous sentence, I had to add the word "are," as well, so I cut out two syllables in the original sentence. Why does this matter? It's all about sentence flow and readability scores. If you write wordily, people will be turned off and in tune with what someone else has to say.

More importantly, his second point is crucial, especially for bloggers: -ing words can start to sound the same when they are used repeatedly in a sentence. For instance, you need content about a law that was just passed into legislation. Instead of saying: "Passing this new law is making it more difficult for families who go shopping for groceries regularly to afford paying their bills (grammar note: "paying" should be "to pay," the infinitive form, not as a gerund "paying."). Passing, making, shopping, paying... it all starts to blend too much, and the sentence has no real flow to it. Let's revise and see what happens: The new law that passed makes it difficult for families who regularly shop for groceries to afford their bills. While the previous sentence isn't the greatest in and of itself, you can argue that it is more transparent and flows better.

Reflect on the -ings

Start to recognize these -ing patterns in what you read. I did this last night when I started to read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I did not get to an -ing word in the first chapter until the second paragraph, second sentence. He chose the word "fighting" to describe what goes on in the mountains at night. If you know a thing or two about Hemingway, he was a very strategic word-placer. After that sentence, however, he does drop three -ing words in one sentence: lightning, feeling, coming. He did this to add urgency, of course. So like I said, -ing words aren't bad, but be careful that you don't overdo them. And let's be honest: it's Hemingway: he could write whatever he wanted. After all, he has an -ing in his name!


Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.

Hemingway, E. (2014). A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


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