Verbal Noun

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A scene from Shakspeare's Othello
A scene from Shakspeare's Othello.

Smith Collection/Gado /  Getty Images

A noun that is derived from a verb (usually by adding the suffix -ing) and that exhibits the ordinary properties of a noun.

For example, in the sentence "His firing of William was a mistake," the word firing functions as a verbal noun (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985).

As Sidney Greenbaum notes in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), "Verbal nouns contrast with deverbal nouns, that is, other kinds of nouns derived from verbs, such as attempt, destruction, and including nouns ending in -ing that do not have verbal force: building in The building was empty. They also contrast with the gerund, which also ends in -ing, but is syntactically a verb."

In traditional grammar, the expression verbal noun has often been treated as a synonym for gerund, but both terms "are out of favour among some modern grammarians" (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2014).

Examples and Observations:

  • "The atmosphere at home had become difficult as we approached our opening of the Shrew."
    (Sian Phillips, Public Places. Faber & Faber, 2003)
  • His acting the part of Othello was distinguished by a breadth and grandeur that placed it far beyond the efforts of other actors.
  • "Even in fiction, the Joads' misery is best captured in vignettes: Ma's colloquies with Rose of Sharon, the rollicking dance at the government camp, Uncle John's sending the dead baby down the river, images easily translated into film." (Susan Shillinglaw, Introduction to A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck. Penguin, 1999)
  • "Margureitte Radcliffe's afternoon testimony was taken up with her typing of the confession, the choice of paper, the crossed-out portions, the manner in which she had inserted the paper into the typewriter--all questions from Andy Weathers." (Ann Rule, Everything She Ever Wanted. Simon & Schuster, 1992)
  • The building of the British Empire may be said to have begun with the ascent of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. 
  • "The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young." (Willa Cather, One of Ours, 1922)

Nominal Qualities of Verbal Nouns

"Though derived from a verb, a verbal noun is strictly a noun, and it exhibits nominal properties: it takes determiners like the and this, it permits adjectives (but not adverbs), it permits following prepositional phrases (but not objects), and it can even be pluralized if the sense permits. Example: In football, the deliberate tripping of an opponent is a foul. Here the verbal noun tripping takes the determiner the, the adjective deliberate and the prepositional phrase of an opponent, but it exhibits no verbal properties at all. In other words, tripping, in this case, is a perfectly ordinary noun, behaving just like any other noun, with no verbal properties in sight. Compare the last example with one involving the unremarkable noun attack: In football, a deliberate attack on an opponent is a foul. (R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)

-ing Forms

"English . . . has a verb plus -ing form, rare in the multiplicity of its functions and in its complexity. No two grammars appear to agree on the appropriate terms for these forms: gerund, verb noun, verbal noun, participial clause, participial adjective, present participle, deverbal adjective, deverbal noun. Moreover, often one or another of its uses is omitted." (Peter Newmark, "Looking at English Words in Translation." Words, Words, Words: The Translator and the Language Learner, ed. by Gunilla M. Anderman and Margaret Rogers. Multilingual Matters, 1996)

Gerunds and Verbal Nouns 

"Gerunds are defined by two properties, the first making them verb-like, the second noun-like:

(a) A gerund contains (at least) a verb stem and the suffix -ing.
(b) A gerund has one of the functions that are characteristic of nouns--or rather, . . . a gerund heads a phrase with one of the functions that are characteristic of NPs . . ..

"The combination of verb-like and noun-like properties given in (a) and (b) underlies the traditional characterisation of gerunds as 'verbal nouns.' Note, however, that this latter term, 'verbal noun,' implies that greater weight is attached to (b) than to (a): a verbal noun is primarily a kind of noun, not a kind of verb." (Rodney D. Huddleston, Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Possession and Verbal Nouns

"You are familiar with gerund clauses as in this sentence:

30a We watched Mark winning the race.

Compare this sentence:

30b We applauded Mark's winning of the race.

30b contains a verbal noun, formed like the gerund by adding -ing to the verb but differing from the gerund in the kind of construction it appears in: the subject of the verbal noun is typically possessive and the object of the verbal noun is preceded by of, as in the example. All verbs form a gerund by adding -ing. . . .

"The next group of sentences contains verbal noun clauses in subject and object positions. As the examples show, when the verb requires a preposition before an object, the verbal noun keeps that preposition but if the verb does not have a preposition, the verbal noun inserts of.

31 I enjoyed our conversation. (We conversed.)
32 Your response to that question was brilliant. (You responded to that question.)
33 The company's employment of many people has added to our local economy. (The company employs many people.)
34 The president will soon announce her selection of a new cabinet officer. (The president selects a new cabinet officer.)

If the verb has an overt subject, that subject becomes a possessive form before a verbal noun, as shown. If there is no overt subject, the verbal noun is preceded by the."​ (Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English Semantics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2014)

Also Known As: -ing noun

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Noun." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Verbal Noun. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Noun." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).

Watch Now: Plural vs. Possessives