Why “-ing” is not always wrong

In discussions about choosing answers on Fixing Sentences, the word “gerund” is often used as a blanket term covering just about anything that ends in -ing. It’s not quite that simple, however. Yes, gerunds are formed by tacking -ing onto verb (e.g. go —> going, talk —> talking), but participles are also formed exactly the same way.

While gerunds are usually bad, participles…well, not so much. They actually have very little effect on whether an answer is wrong or right.

This means that if you’re indiscriminately eliminating answer choices just because they contain words ending in “-ing,” you might get yourself into some trouble.

Here’s the distinction:

Gerund: A gerund is a verb that acts as a noun. It usually follows a possessive adjective such as her, your, or their (e.g. I was annoyed by his whistling).

Participle: A participle is a verb that acts as an adjective. It precedes a noun, exactly the way an adjective does (e.g. I was annoyed by the whistling boy).
Consider this sentence:

Correct: Although it lacks traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.

The sentence is fine because “exciting” functions as an adjective modifying “spectacle,” not as a gerund.
In addition, participles are often used to fix comma splices:

Incorrect: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle, it features beautiful costumes and thrilling acts.

Correct: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle, featuring beautiful costumes and thrilling acts.
On the other hand, answers that contain gerunds are usually wrong either because they are wordy and awkward or because they are fragments.

 

Wordy and awkward: In spite of its lacking traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.

Correct: Although it lacks traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.


Fragment: 
Cirque de Soleil being regarded as an exciting spectacle.

Correct: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle

Being = Wrong

The word “being” is hands-down the most dangerous word on both the Fixing Sentences portion of the SAT (not Error-Identification!) and on ACT English.

In fact, the appearance of the word “being” in an answer choice is virtually guaranteed to make that answer incorrect.

This is the case for a couple of reasons. First, “being” is a gerund (verb + -ING). Gerunds are not verbs, and they cannot be used to replace verbs.
Not a sentence: Rome being a beautiful and historical city.

Sentnece: Rome is a beautiful and historical city.
Any phrase that contains only a gerund is a fragment and is never correct in formal written English. Not on the SAT, not on the ACT, not in real life.

Even when “being” is grammatically acceptable, it still has a tendency to make things kind of clunky and awkward.
On the SAT, the phrase “being that” should be replaced by “because:”

Awkward: Being that Marco has studied Italian for five years, he can converse with his relatives in Rome.

Clear: Because Marco has studied Italian for five years, he can converse with his relatives in Rome.
And the phrase “because of being” should be replaced by the subject and the conjugated verb:

Awkward: Because of being fluent in Italian, Marco can converse with his relatives in Rome.

Clear: Because he is fluent in Italian, Marco can converse with his relatives in Rome.

Gerunds are (usually) wrong

Rule: whenever you are given the choice between a gerund and a conjugated verb on either SAT Writing (Fixing Sentences) or ACT English, pick the conjugated verb. If you’re scanning through ACT English or Fixing Sentences answers, you should automatically cross out any options that contain gerunds. If nothing that remains works, then you can go back and reassess, but this strategy will usually get you to the right answer a whole lot faster.

Here’s why: Gerunds can be nasty little critters. They look like verbs. They sound like verbs. They *ought* to be verbs. But they’re not.

Although they are created from verbs, for all practical purposes they are in fact nouns.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, gerunds are built by adding -ING onto verbs

Be —– Being

Have —– Having

Run —– Running

You get the picture. Gerunds are frequently used with the possessive (e.g. “The teacher was annoyed by his incessant talking during class”), although they can also be used with object pronouns (The teacher was annoyed by him talking incessantly during class). The second one has a slightly different emphasis, but it is acceptable.

The possessive vs. object distinction (his vs. him) before a gerund is NOT tested on either the SAT or the ACT.

Since gerunds are not verbs, they cannot replace verbs. A sentence that contains only a gerund is actually missing a main verb. Any sentence on the SAT or the ACT that includes only a gerund is automatically incorrect.

Much of the time, this error will be pretty obvious:

Incorrect: The senator giving a press conference about her decision not to run for re-election.

And the easiest way to fix it is simply to stick in a conjugated verb

Correct: The senator gave a press conference about her decision not to run for re-election.

But sometimes they’ll try to confuse you with multiple clauses or false parallelisms:

Incorrect: The senator, who earlier in the week had publicized her intention to run for re-election, calling a press conference to announce her decision to pursue other political goals.

Correct: The senator, who earlier in the week had publicized her intention to run for re-election, called a press conference to announce her decision to pursue other political goals.

Or:

Incorrect: The senator publicizing her intention to run for re-election but later calling a press conference to announce her decision to pursue other political goals.

It may be parallel, but it’s not correct!

Correct: The senator publicized her intention to run for re-election but later called a press conference to announce her decision to pursue other political goals.

On the other hand, gerunds can be used as subjects because they are actually nouns. When they are used this way, they always take singular verbs.

Correct: Distributing copies of her new book was the mayor’s primary strategy for publicizing her campaign.

Incorrect: Distributing copies of her new book were the mayor’s primary strategy for publicizing her campaign.

It’s ok to start a sentence with “because”

Sometime around second or third grade, most people learn that it’s not ok to start to start a sentence with the word “because.” While I have no desire to cast aspersion on your third-grade teacher, unfortunately that rule is only half true. The main reason is gets taught that way is that seven and eight year-olds have a tendency to write sentences like this:

Because I went to Disneyland last summer!

Or:

Because I played hockey with my brother last weekend.

As I hope you can recognize, neither of these is a full sentence; it is unacceptable to begin the sentences such as these with “because.”

Unfortunately, though, a lot of the time no one bothers to teach the other half of the rule three or four years down the line. The truth is that under certain circumstances it’s perfectly fine to start a sentence with “because.”

Here’s when: a clause beginning with “because” (e.g. “because I stayed out late last night) must be followed by a complete sentence.

Correct: Because I stayed out late last night, I fell asleep in math class this morning.

Since the second clause, “I fell asleep in math class this morning,” works as a stand-alone statement, it’s perfectly acceptable to start the entire sentence with “because.”

Dealing with Transition Questions

Transition questions tend to be one of the trickier kinds of questions that show up on both the SAT Writing and the ACT English sections. Unlike straight-up grammar questions, they don’t present obvious errors that can be easily caught by ear. Instead, they require you to (gasp!) think.

Transitions can be divided into three major categories.

Continuers include and, furthermore, moreover, and in fact, which tell us that an idea is continuing on in the same direction it began

Contradictors include but, yet, although, despite, nevertheless and however, which tell us that the an idea is being contradicted or moved in a different direction

Cause and Effect include so, therefore, and consequently tell us that something is happening as a result of something else.

On the SAT, you will be dealing primarily — but not exclusively — with and, but, however, and therefore; on the ACT, you will encounter a much wider variety of transitions, and such questions will appear far more frequently. The essential technique for making sure you get these questions right is the same on both tests, however: whenever you see a transition underlined, you need to take your pencil and cross it out. It is important that you physically cross it out, not just imagine you’re crossing it out. Then, examine the relationship between the two clauses (same idea or different ideas) before you look at the answers.

Original sentence: People who are happy to be alone are often viewed as as odd or threatening, and research suggests that spending time by oneself is necessary to interacting well with others.

Cross out transition and consider clauses separately

1) People who are happy to be alone are often viewed as odd or threatening

2) Research suggests that spending time by oneself is necessary to interacting well with others.

Determine relationship: Contradiction

Plug in correct transition: People who are happy to be alone are often viewed as as odd or threatening, but/yet research suggests that spending time by oneself is necessary to interacting well with others.

Or: People who are happy to be alone are often viewed as odd or threatening; however, research suggests that spending time by oneself is necessary to interacting well with others.

How to Recognize and Correct Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers are guaranteed to show up on both the SAT and ACT. You can reasonably expect to encounter one on every test. So what is a dangling modifier, and how do you fix it? Dangling modifiers are best explained through examples, so let’s take a look at an example.

Correct: The dog jumped over the fence after escaping from its leash.

In this sentence, the subject (the dog) appears immediately and the modification follows. We can, however, also rewrite the sentence so that the modification comes before the subject:

Correct: After escaping from its leash, the dog jumped over the fence.

Even though the dog no longer appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is still the subject. And at the beginning of the sentence, we now have a clause that describes the subject but that does not name it. If the subject does not immediately follow that description, however, the result is a dangling modifier. When taken literally, sentences that contain dangling modifiers are often completely absurd.

Dangling Modifier: After escaping from its leash, the fence was jumped over by the dog. (Implies that the fence escaped from its leash.)

Dangling Modifier: After escaping from its leash, jumping over the fence was what the dog did. (Implies that jumping escaped from its leash.)

While some of the dangling modifiers that appear on the SAT and ACT clearly sound wrong, like the sentences above, others can be much harder to catch — especially if you’re not looking out for them.

For example:

Dangling Modifier: Created by British composer Pete M. Wyer, music and nature are combined in iForest, one of the first site-specific “immersive sound experiences.”

Since dangling modifiers often start with participles (the -ING or -ED form a verb), the appearance of the word created at the beginning of the sentence is a tip-off that we are dealing with a dangling modifier.

The question we must then ask is: What did Pete M. Wyer create? Logically, iForest, not “music and nature.”

So the word iForest must come immediately after the comma. It does not matter that the meaning of the sentence is clear enough in the incorrect version. The rule is that when an introductory phrase describes the subject, that subject must immediately follow. Otherwise, the modifier is dangling.

Correct: Created by British composer Pete M. Wyer, iForest combines music and nature in one of the first site-specific “immersive sound experiences.”

It is important that you be able to identify subjects in sentences like these because typically only one answer choice will correctly place the subject after the introductory phrase. If you can spot the subject, you can jump straight to the answer.