Gerunds: Special Verbs That Are Also Nouns

Gerunds in English

Journaling

Woods Wheatcroft / Getty Images

A gerund is a verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun. Adjective: gerundial or gerundival. The term gerund is used in traditional grammar, but many contemporary linguists prefer instead to use the -ing form instead.

A gerund accompanied by its objects, complements, and/or modifiers is called a gerund phrase or simply a noun phrase. Like nouns, gerunds and gerund phrases can function as subjects, objects, or complements in a sentence. Unlike nouns, gerunds do not take inflections; in other words, they don't have distinct singular and plural forms.

Etymology: From the Latin word "gerere," meaning "to carry on"

Pronunciation: JER-end

Examples of Gerunds

Any time you see an -ing verb functioning as a noun, you can be sure that you are dealing with a gerund. Use these examples to familiarize yourself with this special type of verbal.

  • Going to college is expensive.
  • "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." -William Arthur Ward
  • Binx Bolling, the hero of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, enjoys riding the bus that runs from Gentilly down Elysian Fields and into the French Quarter of New Orleans.
  • "I never believe nor disbelieve. If you will excuse my speaking frankly, I mean to observe you closely, and to decide for myself," (Collins 1877).
  • "They cut down elms to build asylums for people driven mad by the cutting down of elms," (Barker 1950).
  • "Shooting paintballs is not an art form," (Cartwright "The Joy of Sect").
  • "Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it." -Langston Hughes
  • "All talk of winning the people by appealing to their intelligence, of conquering them by impeccable syllogism, is so much moonshine." -H. L. Mencken
  • "There are times when parenthood seems nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you," (De Vries 1982).
  • "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy," (Shaw 1905).

How a Gerund Is Formed and Used

Gerunds are formed from verbs and result in verbs, but they function as nouns. R.L. Trask does a great job of explaining this: "A gerund is derived from a verb by adding the suffix -ing. The result is still a verb, and it exhibits ordinary verbal properties, such as taking objects and adverbs. Example: In football, deliberately tripping an opponent is a foul. Here the verb trip occurs in its gerund form tripping, but this tripping is still a verb: it takes the adverb deliberately and the object an opponent.

However, the entire phrase deliberately tripping an opponent, because of the gerund within it, now functions as a noun phrase, in this case as the subject of the sentence. So, a gerund is still a verb, but the phrase built around it is nominal, not verbal," (Trask 2006).

Nouns vs. Gerunds

It's important to remember that though gerunds share properties with nouns, they are not nouns and they work a little differently. "Because they are nounlike, we can think of gerunds as names. But rather than naming persons, places, things, events, and the like, as nouns generally do, gerunds, because they are verbs in form, name activities or behaviors or states of mind or states of being," (Kolln and Funk 1998).

Differences Between Gerunds and Participles

Don't let yourself confuse gerunds, verbs acting as nouns, and participles, verbs acting as adjectives. Author June Casagrande admits that the two are easy to tangle. "Because some [participles] are identical to gerunds, they can get confusing:

Visiting relatives can be fun.

Does this mean that the act of visiting (visiting as a gerund) can be fun, or that relatives who are visiting (visiting as a modifier) can be fun? We don't know," (Casagrande 2010).

Bernard O'Dwyer also notes the similarities between participles and gerunds, a common source of confusion for readers and writers. "Present participles and gerunds look similar as words, and they also look similar as phrases. Again, it is the -ing verbal form that causes this problem."

He goes on to explain how to differentiate between the two: "To clearly distinguish these, we need to consider their grammatical functions. A present participle functions as a non-finite form of a verb phrase, after verbs of motion and position; it can be an adverb complement after these verbs; it can qualify/modify as an adjective does. In contrast, gerunds like nouns have naming roles and can occupy the place of nouns in many of their grammatical functions. Unlike nouns, they do not name persons, places, things, or events; they name actions, states, and behaviors," (O'Dwyer 2006).

Example

The following excerpt from Analyzing English Grammar gives an example of a "borderline case" where a term could either be considered a gerund or participle in two different contexts that are only slightly different. "How do linguists decide unusual or borderline cases? They test difficult examples against various prototypical patterns and decide which pattern the case at hand most resembles. In the following examples, is listening a gerund or an adverbial participle?

45a. While listening to the concerto, Marcia decided to study music.
45b. After listening to the concerto, Marcia decided to study music.

Listening is a participle in (45a), and the phrase is adverbial. It is a reduced form of the adverbial subordinate clause While she was listening to the concerto. Listening in (45b) has a different origin. It cannot be derived from After she was listening to the concerto. In fact, after is a preposition in (45b) and listening to the concerto is a gerund phrase that can be replaced by the pronoun that," (Klammer et al. 2004).

What Is a Gerundive?

Although a small number of traditional grammarians use the term gerundive as a synonym for gerund, the gerundive is a distinct verb form in Latin grammar. "There is no grammatical equivalent [to the Latin gerundive] in English, and the term is rarely used," (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar).

Sources

  • Barker, George. The Dead Seagull. 1st American ed., Farrar, Straus and Young, 1950.
  • Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. 1st ed., Ten Speed Press, 2010.
  • Collins, Wilkie. "Percy and the Prophet." Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. LV, June 1877.
  • De Vries, Peter. The Tunnel of Love. 1st ed., Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Klammer, Thomas P., et al. Analyzing English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson, 2004.
  • Kolln, Martha, and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
  • O'Dwyer, Bernard. Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. 2nd ed. Broadview, 2006.
  • Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Shaw, George Bernard. Man and Superman. 1905.
  • “The Joy of Sect.” Moore, Steven Dean, director. The Simpsons, season 9, episode 13, Fox, 8 Feb. 1998.
  • Trask, R.L. Mind the Gaffe!: A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style and Usage. Harper Collins, 2006.