Nonfinite clauses in literature

In this activity, students look at how nonfinite clauses might be used in their own writing and that of others to vary the structure of a text. On one level, this is about creating something that people like to read: something that is interesting, varied and engaging and designed to hook the reader or suit the style you are hoping to adopt. On another level, it’s about students showing teachers and examiners that they know about different forms and can use them in their writing.


  • Identify to-infinitives and -ing participles, as well as the clause that contain them.
  • Consider the effect of using different nonfinite clauses.
  • Rewrite passages in a more effective way by either increasing or decreasing the number of nonfinite clauses.

Lesson Plan

Click on the interactive whiteboard icon (top right) and work through the following slides with students. First we’ll take a look at how published authors have used varied clause types in their writing. Then it will be over to the students to try their hands at rewriting some passages by using a variety of structures.

Extract 1

I kept looking up at the church tower as I ran, all the while urging my legs to keep going, to take me faster, all the while praying that Big Joe would be up there in his heaven.

(Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful, HarperCollins 2005, page 83)

Here, you might be able to see that the use of to-infinitives and -ing participles is effective in maintaining a pace to the story-telling. This is an important and exciting moment in the novel and the author has helped to convey the excitement and tension by the way he has written this sentence. Instead of breaking the text up into two or more separate sentences, he has kept it running (like the narrator is running) in one longer sentence.

Extract 2

Some of the band stopped when they felt the land grow rough underfoot, but others pressed right on, seeking the phantom village, following dim wavering shapes that fled just out of reach before them. All the mist had come alive with these fleeing forms, dodging, flickering, fading on every side.

(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Earthsea Trilogy, Penguin 1979, page 21)

There are a number of -ing participles in this extract. Can you pick out the verbs in these clauses? What effect do you think the writer has created by using these clauses?

Did you find the highlighted verbs below which help to form -ing participle clauses?

Some of the band stopped when they felt the land grow rough underfoot, but others pressed right on, seeking the phantom village, following dim wavering shapes that fled just out of reach before them. All the mist had come alive with these fleeing forms, dodging, flickering, fading on every side.

What effects did you notice? Here are some suggestions:

  • In the first sentence, the clauses with seeking and following seem to extend the action of others pressed right on, giving the feeling of driving forward and trying to achieve a purpose.
  • In the second sentence we have a cluster of three -ing participle verbs occurring together: dodging, flickering, fading. This seems to create a feeling of constant movement and change.

You may have noticed some other forms ending in -ing:

  • dim wavering shapes
  • these fleeing forms

 These words are used in a rather different way: they help to form noun phrases by modifying the nouns that follow them (shapes, forms).

It is rather hard to decide on their word class. They are best classed as verbs being used in a special way, but some linguists class them as adjectives. The important thing to notice here is their effect in the extract. They seem to provide a way of adding to the overall sense of activity. So this is yet another pattern that is available to create effect.

Extract 3

I feel my way. Guns. Hooks. Waterproofs. Cold stiff sleeves brush my face. My feet tangle in harnesses. Isaak has found the door. I claw at it. I can’t find the handle. I’m in the porch, battling a thicket of ski sticks and shovels. I wrench open the door and burst out into the night.

(Michelle Paver, Dark Matter, Orion 2011, page 239)

This extract comes from a gripping ghost story set in the Arctic wilderness. What do you notice about the structures the writer has used, and their effects?

You may have noticed that this passage is narrated in the first person and uses mainly present tense verbs to create a vivid effect (e.g. feel, brush, tangle). Most of the sentences are short. There is also a series of three nouns punctuated like sentences: Guns. Hooks. Waterproofs. All this seems to create a breathless, tense mood.

We then have a longer sentence, extended by an -ing participle clause: battling a thicket of ski sticks and shovels. This seems to hold up the action, so that we feel the narrator’s frustration and desperation. These feelings are then released as the extract continues with two more present tense verbs indicating explosive actions, wrench and burst.

Writing activity 1: building

Now it’s your turn. See if you can rewrite the passage below in a more effective way. This passage has eleven sentences. All of the clauses contain tensed verbs – there are no nonfinite clauses. There is very little variety in the structures used, so the passage has a monotonous feel.

Rewrite the passage, covering all of the content but using fewer sentences. Try to make the structure more varied, for instance by using some nonfinite clauses.

Toby hid behind a pillar. He peered out cautiously. Then he could see what was happening. He was horrified by what he saw. He sprang from behind the pillar. He darted forward. He knocked the glass from the king’s hand. The red wine flew out. It splashed all over the queen’s white gown. The glass fell on the tiled floor. It smashed into a hundred tiny fragments.

Writing activity 2: demolition

The second writing task involves doing the opposite of what you have just done. This time, your starting passage is made up of one long sentence with many nonfinite clauses. See if you can break this down into several shorter sentences. You can change the order of the material if this works better.

Settled down on the floor of the cave, having peeled off their wet clothes and wrapped themselves in their blankets, the companions talked and laughed freely, forgetting about the dangers lying ahead and eagerly discussing what to do with the treasure that was to be seized tomorrow from the dragon’s lair.

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