In an answer to this ELL question, one of our users provided this example sentence, claiming it was grammatical:

He sighed starting cleaning the floor.

That sentence seems to clash in my native ear. I suggested that it wasn't good grammar, and that (assuming I'm understanding the gist of the sentence) it should be restructure to something like:

He sighed, and started to clean the floor.


He sighed and started cleaning the floor.

In a comment, though, the user who wrote the sentence stuck by the claim that the original example sentence doesn't violate any grammatical rules.

Rather than start a protracted debate under the comments over there, I figured I would simply ask about the matter here in a new question.

Is this sentence acceptible from a purely grammatical standpoint? Is it colloquial?

I did find some sentences online that used the "starting cleaning" word pair, but they weren't really using them as consecutive verbs. For example:

A broom, mop, sponges, dish soap, hand soap, paper towels, and all-purpose cleaner should serve well as a starting cleaning package.

In this case, both starting and cleaning modify package adjectively, so, even though that sentence uses the two words, it's meaning and grammatical structure are quite different.

Should I retract my comment? Or keeping sticking [sic] to my guns?

  • 2
    I say stick to your guns. The original sentence is grammatically horrific at best. That said, your alternative examples don't quite match what the author is trying to convey. I believe the events are happening at the same time and I'd write the line as; "he sighed as he started to clean the floor."
    – Joe Dark
    Sep 12 '15 at 23:01
  • I have no real native ear, but the sentence sounds really awkward to my ear too. On the other hand, if I don't use my ears, but use my eyes instead, I believe that the sentence is grammatical (or at least grammatically acceptable). This reminds me of a comment I wrote a couple days ago: "This is something beyond grammar. A sentence or an utterance can be grammatical, and yet sounds very awkward". Sep 13 '15 at 4:04
  • 2
    Also, there is good information I learned in one of my old answers (it's in a comment under my answer), "Aspectual verbs (e.g. "begin", "start") cannot themselves be in the -ing form when they have an -ing complement. CGEL page 1243-4, [57]. This is known as the "doubl-ing constraint." I've ordered a CGEL but it still hasn't arrived, so I cannot verify that myself. Perhaps other ELL members can confirm that. Sep 13 '15 at 4:12
  • @DamkerngT. How did I know that that reference was going to be from the inestimable F.E.? Sep 13 '15 at 10:52

Grammatical? —

  • Conventional orthography, whether mechanical or rhetorical, demands a comma after sighed. Is punctuation a matter of grammar? I dunno; but it's certainly a factor in intelligibility.

  • Starting cleaning is syntactically acceptable—start undoubtedly licenses gerund complements. But I think it would grate on most native hearers, because it violates the horror aequi principle. Is that a matter of grammar? I dunno; but it's certainly a factor in acceptability.

    ADDED following pointers from F.E., DamkerngT and Araucaria: Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky (names to conjure with!), 'Gerund participles and head-complement inflection conditions', in Collins and Lee, The Clause in English: In honor of Rodney Huddleston, 1999, find an explicitly syntactic constraint: "It is not acceptable in most varieties of modern English for a complement (as opposed to an object) marked with gerund participle inflection to be adjacent to its matrix-clause verb when that verb is likewise in gerund participle form."

Just as there are lots of technically legal practices which honorable merchants will not perpetrate on their customers, there are lots of technically grammatical constructions which good writers will not perpetrate on their readers.

  • Yes, I thought about horror aequi, but that doesn't seem to be the whole story. Consider "He resigned, finding cleaning toilets rather boring". I'm going to dig out @damkerng's H&P reference. +1 for you last para. Sep 13 '15 at 10:53
  • @Araucaria You're right. See my addition. Sep 13 '15 at 12:16
  • @araucaria: but that's a different usage—"cleaning" in your example is a gerund. The question is about using two -ing in a row as verbs. Sep 13 '15 at 12:40
  • @BrianHitchcock "We are going fishing" Sep 13 '15 at 12:46
  • @Araucaria, it seems slightly less bad when the second "-ing" word is intransitive, as in your example. Try, "We are going fishing trout." To me that sounds odd, whereas "We are fishing trout" would be entirely acceptable.
    – Wildcard
    Dec 11 '16 at 20:13

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