I have been writing short stories for the last few months, and have a bad habit of overusing certain sentence structures. Now I think I overuse a particular remedy to the original problem. Oh dear. When I started thinking about it, I was suddenly unsure if it is even a valid structure.

To take a simple example:

He stomped off, muttering to himself.

The intention is that both actions happen at the same time. Alternatives include:

  • He stomped off while muttering to himself.
  • He muttered to himself as he stomped off.

I dislike the second version, as stomping off is clearly the more important action; stomping off without muttering is closer to my meaning than muttering without stomping off.

My intuition is that it is valid, but I have struggled to find out what this type of sentence structure is called. I think it is a compound sentence, but the second part seems to be dependent on the first because of the time correspondence.

If it is valid - and I know this may be purely subjective - is it a good style? Do you think it is better or worse than the alternatives I gave? Is there a good variation I missed?

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    A participial phrase is a group of words consisting of a participle and the modifier(s) and/or (pro)noun(s) or noun phrase(s) that function as the direct object(s), indirect object(s), or complement(s) of the action or state expressed in the participle, such as: Removing his coat, Jack rushed to the river. Jan 11, 2021 at 12:00
  • ...I knew I'd find at least somebody switching the participle to the other verb in this pair: He muttered to himself stomping off Jan 11, 2021 at 12:05
  • Does this answer your question? Participle phrase or participle clause? For my students please As to choosing between variants, you're right that the third alternative highlights the muttering. The version with the participle/participial clause (some still claim these are phrases) is really good for implying ... almost an afterthought. The second sounds a little odd, not just highlighting the muttering but elevating it to an important activity. Fine with 'He sang while knitting'. Jan 11, 2021 at 12:10
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    ... And 'He stomped off while still muttering to himself' is not odd at all (though of course alters the sense slightly). Jan 11, 2021 at 12:18
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    In "He stomped off, muttering to himself" the comma marks the gerund-participial clause as a supplement -- more precisely a non-modifying depictive adjunct,
    – BillJ
    Jan 11, 2021 at 12:26

1 Answer 1


Sprinkling liberally your writing with any pet structures tends to make it stilted and artificial. It spices up your writing to diversify structures and sometimes— take bold leaps to flout the rules (This, of course, hardly means that you could make or breaks rules at will.)


He stomped off, muttering to himself.

is a perfectly valid construction, where muttering to himself is the participle phrase acting as a modifier.

Of course, you could go with your other version (using while or as), and it depends on what and how you want your message to come through.

Significantly, the while version is probably just as good as the original here, but it's not always that you could use the two versions interchangeably: You could compromise the exactitude of your implied meaning. To illustrate with an example— [Pursued by bandits, he managed to get safely to his home]— it's unclear whether the two actions—pursued and managed to get safely to his home— are occuring simultaneously or not. Here the while version might do the trick.

So the bottom line is that it depends on what you want to convey and how you want to convey it. Rest, the English language does really offer you a cornucopia of choices to pick from.

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    Not quite: "muttering to himself" is actually a clause, not a phrase. And it's set apart by a comma, meaning that it's a supplement, not a modifier.
    – BillJ
    Jan 11, 2021 at 11:57
  • @BillJ: Of course I wanted to describe it as a gerund-participle clause acting as a supplement (considering the very many such examples we so frequently come across hereabouts), but I'm for the moment sticking to traditional labels. That doesn't derogate anything from the meat of the answer— OP wasn't really asking about the grammar of it. :)
    – user405662
    Jan 11, 2021 at 12:20
  • I'm not sure I understand what this answer is trying to convey. What is all the talk about "pet structures"? None of the suggestions appears a solecism or even a particularly unusual method of expression that would merit that phrase. Also, It's clear from the question (which doesn't appear to have been edited, but apologies if I'm wrong) that both are happening simultaneously, so I don't know why you muddy the waters by saying otherwise. "He stomped off, muttering to himself." is fine and seems to convey best what is wanted.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 11, 2021 at 12:48
  • @Struart F: I am sure you have a better answer. Please go ahead! :)
    – user405662
    Jan 11, 2021 at 12:52
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    The questioner did admit that he overused certain structures. Jan 11, 2021 at 16:33

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