Some Thoughts on Why Participles Express Urgency?

Sep 21, 2015 by

A recent LanguageLog post by Mark Liberman about a Doonesbury cartoon made me wonder about the import of different English verb forms. The first two and last two panels of the cartoon are reproduced on the left. Liberman writes:

The idea that short phrases convey urgency is a well-established principle of writing advice […] But it’s not obvious to me that either in headlines or in broadcast news, the use of present participles rather than tensed verbs is generally the more urgent-seeming choice:


The town reels, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!

The town reeling, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!


Obviously, the –ing participle is longer than the simple present form (e.g. reels) by a whole syllable, but Liberman conjectures that the length principle is overridden by the (hypothesized) principle that “noun-phrase fragments”—or to be more precise, gerunds—“are more urgent than full clauses”. For example, in optimality-theoretic terms, one could say that the constraint that rules out clauses would be ranked higher than the one that penalizes length. However, it is not clear what the nominal vs. clausal nature of a constituent has to do with expressing urgency. (Whether length is all that relevant is not obvious either, as Liberman notes with an example where long run-on sentences express urgency.)

Here, I would like to suggest an alternative explanation of why -ing participles may be perceived as conveying urgency; this conjecture is based on aspectual properties of English verbs rather than on the nominal nature of gerunds. As is well-known, ‑ing participles in verbal forms express simultaneity with some point in the past, present, or future. Thus, I am dancing means that dancing is simultaneous with the present moment, while I was dancing means that dancing was simultaneous with some point in the past. As a result, past progressive is often used as part of sequence of tenses: He said that he was working means that working took place at the same time as saying. Note that languages that do not use Sequence of Tenses, like English does, would use present tense instead, for instance the corresponding Russian sentence is On skazal, čto rabotaet lit. ‘He said that is working’. (In Russian, the present tense rather than the participle expresses simultaneity.) Similarly, I will be dancing means that dancing will take place at some moment in the future, for example: Tomorrow precisely at noon, I will be dancing.

Simple present tense, in contrast, denotes eventualities that take place at or around the present moment. Thus, The Earth revolves around the Sun states a fact that is generally true: it is true right now, but it was also true a year ago and will still be true five years from now. Likewise, I work from home can be true even if at the present moment I am neither working nor at home. Curiously, English employs the simple present to encode other types events that are happening “generally around now”, such as stage directions (e.g. Exits the stage to the right.). After all, stage directions apply not only at the moment when they are said/written, but whenever the play is read or performed. Similarly, in discussions of scholarly work, simple past is often used to convey that a statement, conjecture, hypothesis, and the like apply not only at the moment of writing but generally. Thus, Liberman conjectures that the length principle is overridden by… in the second paragraph of this post conveys that Liberman’s making that conjecture applies not only when I wrote that paragraph, but generally.

In a sense, the denotation of the simple present is broader than that of the present progressive (which contains the –ing participle): I dance {often/every day/ from time to time} denotes an eventuality that occurs at a broader range of temporal points than I am dancing. Moreover, because of its habitual import, the simple present need not denote something that happens at this very moment. Thus, I dance can be true even if at the present moment I am typing this post rather than dance. I am dancing in the same context is false.

I think (or should it be I am thinking?) that the solution to the urgency issue is to be found in this difference in denotation between the simultaneity of -ing and the generality of the simple present. Let’s look at Liberman’s examples again. The sentence with the simple present, The town reels, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!, is true if the town generally reels these days, but it can be true even if at this very moment the town is unusually calm. In contrast, the sentence with a gerund, which in the absence of an explicit reference point distinct from the present is interpreted the same way as a present progressive would be, that is in reference to the present: The town reeling, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke! means that the town is reeling right now. Hence, the urgency effect.

This is a rather preliminary idea—I’d love to hear what the readers think (or “are thinking”!).

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  • John Cowan

    I have a simpler idea: that the town reeling is headlinese for the town is reeling, and that headlinese (which often omits forms of be) is inherently more urgent-sounding than ordinary syntax.

    • Thanks, John! I think your idea is very similar to mine: headlinese omitting forms of “be” translates into there not being a temporal reference, so it is understood as present tense (thus, “the town reeling” is headlinese for “the town is reeling”), but are you saying that headlinese doesn’t include simple present at all? Because if it does, we still need an explanation for why “ing” headlines are more urgent-sounding than present tense ones…

      • John Cowan

        Because present-time reference is normally expressed by the so-called present progressive, except in the case of stative verbs (which are never going to sound urgent, no matter what you do). The simple present tense with non-stative verbs expresses the future, the habitual, and other things other than present-time reference.

  • Sky Onosson

    I think you’re nailing it. Well, actually you nail it. No, in fact you’ve nailed it. 🙂

  • William P. Leonard

    Headlinese deletes even articles: Town reeling: Dreams of Better Tomorrow Up In Smoke. Be and determiner deletion = urgency

    • Good point about articles, William! I think that article deletion falls under “shortness = urgency” issue.