English Grammar

Gerunds

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. A gerund is a verbal noun; that is, it is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it can function as other nouns function, i.e., as the subject of a sentence, as a direct object, as a predicate nominative, etc. As a verb, it can, if it is a linking verb, be followed by a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective; it can, if it is transitive, take a direct object; and it can, if it is a verb of saying, giving, or showing, take an indirect object. As a noun, it can be modified by adjectives and by words functioning as adjectives (nouns, prepositional phrases, etc.) . As a verb, it can be modified by adverbs and by words functioning as adverbs (adverbial objectives, prepositional phrases, etc.). Like infinitives, gerunds have tense, and (in the case of transitive gerunds) voice, but not person and number. If a verb is intransitive (a verb that does not transfer action to an object), it has only two gerund forms. For example, the verb be has only the present and present-perfect gerunds being and having been. These two gerunds could be used in a sentence like Being in love is better than having been in love. Transitive verbs have two active forms and two corresponding passive forms. The verb to see, a transitive verb, has a present active gerund (seeing) and a present passive gerund (being seen) as well as a present-perfect active gerund (having seen) and a present-perfect passive gerund (having been seen). A gerund with its complements, objects, and modifiers constitutes a gerund phrase. Gerund phrases can, like simple gerunds, function as subjects, predicate nominatives, appositives, direct objects, objects of prepositions, objective complements, and adverbial objectives.

 

2. Gerunds and gerund phrases as subjects . . .

- Waiting is not fun.

- Walking for at least thirty minutes daily is healthy.

- Eating out can get boring.

 

3. Gerunds and gerund phrases as predicate nominatives . . .

- Her hobby is running.

- Giving free food to friends is regarded by the manager as stealing.

- Learning to walk is putting one foot in front of the other.

 

4. Gerunds and gerund phrases as appositives . . .

- These are a few of my grandchildrenís favorite things: coloring, listening to stories, and watching videos.

- It was a pleasure getting to know you.

- This is the life for me, just lying on the sand and soaking up the sun.

 

5. Gerunds and gerund phrases as direct objects . . .

- She doesnít like hitting.

- Do you enjoy their ranting and raving?

- Have you tried starting at the beginning?

 

6. Gerunds and gerund phrases as objects of prepositions . . .

- In the wintertime you can lower your heating bill by freezing.

- Sunday afternoons are reserved for doing fun things with their children.

- Since his heart surgery, he has given much thought to eating and drinking healthfully.

 

7. Gerunds and gerund phrases as objective complements . . .

- Do you call that dancing?

- The judge condemned their door-to-door sales as taking advantage of the elderly.

- Anyone in his right mind would consider that strategy manipulating the books.

 

8. Gerunds and gerund phrases as adverbial objectives (pretty much limited to modifiers of worth). . .

- Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

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9. If the word playing in the expression while playing the National Anthem is the present-participial component of a partially unexpressed progressive verb (while playing the National Anthem could, for example, be expanded to while they were playing the National Anthem), is playing to be analyzed similarly if before or after replaces while? In other words, what is playing in before playing the National Anthem and in after playing the National Anthem? Letís expand the context: Before the playing of the National Anthem, the band marched onto the field. Here playing is a gerund, of course, because it is modified by the article the. But is it a gerund or a participle in the sentence Before playing the National Anthem, the band marched onto the field? Playing used this way feels like a participle. But if it is, one should be able to express the unexpressed words of its elliptical clause. Is before playing the National Anthem short for before it was playing the National Anthem? Who would ever say that? Wouldnít everyone say before it played . . . ? Consider the sentence After glancing just once at his watch, he got up and left the room. If we are to call glancing a participle, we should be able to reword the first part of the sentence this way: After he had been glancing just once at his watch. We canít use had been glancing, a progressive form to express an action that cannot be extended over time. Well, if we donít have an elliptical clause here, we donít have a participle. So, what is going on? It turns out that a gerund, when used without a modifier, sometimes needs a subject. Consider these four sentences:

- Before the playing of the National Anthem, the crowd stood up. The gerund playing is modified by the and does not need a subject.

- Before playing the National Anthem, the crowd stood up. The unmodified gerund playing finds its subject in crowd, resulting in nonsense.

- After our playing of the National Anthem, the crowd sat down. The gerund playing is modified by the possessive pronoun  our, which tells who did the playing.

- After playing the National Anthem, the crowd sat down. The unmodified gerund playing searches for a subject and finds one in crowd, rendering the sentence nonsensical.

The second and fourth sentences make us laugh because they have dangling gerunds, i.e., unmodified gerunds with improper subjects. An example of a sentence using an unmodified gerund with a proper subject is Before playing the National Anthem, the band marched onto the field. Itís not that every unmodified gerund needs an expressed subject. Seeing is believing is, of course, a perfectly acceptable sentence because no expressed subjects of the gerunds seeing and believing are needed.

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10. Speaking of subjects of gerunds, there is a reluctance these days to use the possessive case immediately before gerunds. What do you understand when you read The strict parents donít like the boy talking with their daughter? Strictly speaking, this sentence, which uses a participle instead of a gerund, means that the parents donít like the boy who is talking with their daughter. All too many people, however, understand it to mean that the parents disapprove of conversation between the boy and their daughter. To express the latter thought, one can give the gerund a subject in the possessive case as follows: The strict parents donít like the boyís talking with their daughter.

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11. Gerunds of transitive verbs can be passive as well as active. Here are two sentences with passive gerunds:

- Not being allowed to stay out after midnight is not the worst thing in the world. Being allowed is a present passive gerund.

- Her insecurity resulted from her not having been praised as a child. Having been praised is a present-perfect passive gerund.

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12. Not all nouns ending in -ing are gerunds. Many are ordinary nouns. For instance, in the sentence We were caught in traffic and missed the beginning of the game, beginning is an ordinary noun; however, beginning is a gerund in the sentence You canít read most novels successfully by beginning in the middle

Gerunds come from verbs; therefore, -ing nouns that do not come from verbs are not gerunds, e.g., ceiling, inkling, weakling. If you donít know whether a particular -ing word can be used as an ordinary noun, check an unabridged dictionary.

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13. Gerunds sometimes need an expressed agent. Now Iíll bet thatís something you havenít worried about in the wee hours of the morning, but itís true nevertheless; and itís important. This agent is often called the subject of the gerund, even when it is expressed by the possessive case (by possessive nouns or possessive pronouns). Here are two sentences in which agency is neither expressed nor needed and one sentence in which the subject of the sentence is the agent (subject) of the gerund.

- Seeing is believing.

- Working with flowers is relaxing.

- They succeeded by staying together.

And here are three sentences in which agency is expressed by a possessive noun or pronoun:

- Without our knowing it, the weather changed.

- She likes his helping her.

- Because of Karenís speaking out, Mr. Jones resigned.

The subject (agent) of a gerund must be expressed if its omission would result in ambiguity, unintentional humor, factual error, or nonsense. Without knowing it, the weather changed gives weather a mind, which is nonsensical. The sentence She likes his helping her and the sentence She likes helping her are both grammatically correct; however, they mean entirely different things. 

Because of speaking out, Mr. Jones resigned implies that Mr. Jones was the one who spoke out. When an introductory prepositional phrase in which a gerund is used as the object of the preposition modifies the verb, an unexpressed subject of the gerund is usually assumed to be the person or thing represented by the subject of the sentence. When this assumption is misleading, either the agency must be expressed or the subject of the sentence must be changed. Failure to do this can result in the kind of sentence I heard recently in a TV news broadcast: "People can buy guns in Virginia without checking into the buyerís background." Because the listener assumes that the subject of checking and the subject of the sentence represent the same person, the sentence is nonsensical. The following sentences are, happily, not taken from a printed or broadcast source:

- By volunteering at the Humane Society as often as possible, the animals benefited. It sounds like the animals were the volunteers. The intended meaning can be obtained by inserting a possessive pronoun or adjective before the gerund: By our volunteering at the hospital as often as possible, the patients benefited.

- In driving a nail, the thumb is always at risk of injury. The subject of the sentence, thumb, is not driving anything. The error can be corrected by changing the subject: In learning to drive a nail, you always risk injuring your thumb.

- Except for laughing too much, she likes him. Who laughs too much? A possessive pronoun saves this sentence: Except for his laughing too much, she likes him.

- Because of winning three of the last four races, the Preakness odds were expected to be low. The gerund needs an agent: Because of Barbaroís winning three of the last four races, the Preakness odds were expected to be low.

- Without going into detail, the project is on track for completion at the end of October. The sentence needs a subject that the gerund phrase can modify: Without going into detail, I can tell you that the project is on track for completion at the end of October

- Before buying a used car, she advises customers to request the carís history. She is advising, not buying. A correct expression of this would be Before buying a used car, customers should request the carís history.

- Despite winning the lottery, thoughts of retirement were out of the question. We are not sure who won the lottery or who didnít consider retirement. We are sure, however, if we rephrase as follows: Despite his wifeís winning the lottery, thoughts of retirement were far from his mind or Despite winning the lottery, she did not even consider retirement.

- Instead of riding the roller coaster, walking around the park was fun. Walking did not do any riding. The sentence can be improved by introducing a personal subject: Instead of riding the roller coaster, they enjoyed walking around the park.

Not all prepositional phrases with a gerund as the object of the preposition look to the subject of the sentence for the agent of the gerund when agency is unexpressed by a possessive noun or pronoun. Check out these sentences:

- The Internet assists buyers in finding that perfect house.

- Few qualities are more important for running a business than foresight.

- The new book covers everything from planning a garden to harvesting the crops.

In finding that perfect house modifies the verb; however, no confusion results from the omission of expressed agency. For running a business modifies the adjective important, not the verb. From planning a garden to harvesting the crops modifies the pronoun everything, not the verb.

According to traditional grammar, the agent (subject) of a gerund is in the possessive case. Thus we teach our children to write We were troubled by their jumping to conclusions, She was concerned about her sonís playing in the street, and The teacher noted the studentís chewing gum in class (not We were troubled by them jumping to conclusions, She was concerned about her son playing in the street, and The teacher noted the student chewing gum in class.) Even if we sometimes stray from this model in conversation, we recognize that the possessive case is used to express the subject of a gerund. Or do we? Are you sure?

Envisioning or experiencing a prolonged rain, someone might say, "I am worried about the possibility of water seeping into the basement." Who would say, "I am worried about the possibility of waterís seeping into the basement"?

How about this? Recalling a juvenile misdemeanor, the defendant spoke to his lawyer about the possibility of this being held against him in court. This does not even have a possessive form.

And one more for good measure: What are the odds of something falling from the sky and hitting you on the head? Itís simply unidiomatic to say What are the odds of somethingís falling from the sky and hitting you on the head?

To identify this phenomenon, some grammarians have settled on the expression "fused participle" (a noun and a participle taken together as a single noun). Itís an expression that I do not care for. In my opinion, what we have is a gerund with its subject in the objective case instead of a gerund with its subject in the possessive case. I see no participle at all, only a gerund, which happens to be modified by an objective-case subject instead of a possessive-case subject. If I were to diagram such an expression, letís say something falling in the example above, I would simply hang something down from the gerund falling on a diagonal line, like any other adjectival modifier of a gerund.

Please donít misunderstand. I am not advocating that we stop using the "fused participle"; however, I would welcome a different name. The phenomenon wonít go away; itís too much a part of the language. And, honestly, we probably would not want it to disappear because, used cautiously, it provides a welcome diversity in our language. How would you ever use a possessive to express the subject of the gerund in this sentence: A person from the lower class having a chance to become a millionaire is a matter of pride for many Americans? Try putting Ďs on person and see how the sentence sounds. Of course, Ďs on class would be illogical. Try, if you like, putting of before person. Nothing works. To be sure, you could replace a person from the lower class having a chance with the noun clause that a person from the lower class has a chance, but there goes a certain amount of diversity.

Here are three general recommendations for using the "fused participle" judiciously:

1- Use the possessive case when the subject of the gerund is a proper name, a noun representing a person, or a personal pronoun.

- Robertís being hit in the abdomen by a classroom bully prompted his parents to request a conference with the boysí teacher.

- Until she experienced her brotherís begging to use the car, she had never known groveling could sink to such depths.

- His friends grew tired of his pretending to be someone he wasnít.

2 - Use the objective case when the subject of the gerund is not a person or, if a person, is indefinite.

- There must be a law against cell phone rates going up two hundred percent in one month.

- There was little chance of someone finding out what they had done.

3 - Use the objective case when a word or phrase comes between the gerund and its subject.

- I look forward to a friend of mine coming to visit.

 

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, a gerund and its subject donít quite get the job done.

She hated his growing tobacco. Does this sentence mean that she hated the fact that he was growing tobacco or that she hated the tobacco that was growing?

She hated him growing tobacco. Does this sentence mean that she hated him because he was growing tobacco or that she hated the fact that he was growing tobacco?

We all misspeak, some of us often. Hereís a sentence heard on a national radio talk show: By them doing that, itís a great distraction. A possessive subject of the gerund doing would be preferable. Given time, the speaker might have said either Their doing that is a great distraction or By doing that, they create a great distraction. In the latter sentence, the subject of the sentence is the subject of the gerund.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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