70. Gerunds

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Gerund Roles

Gerunds are “-ing” verbs used like nouns, though their grammar is not completely noun-like.

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THE FORM & USE OF GERUNDS

Gerunds are verbs with -ing, just like so-called “present” participles (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). However, whereas participles act essentially like adjectives, gerunds perform like nouns – they are indeed sometimes called “verbal nouns”. The meanings of gerunds are close to those of verbs; they usually express actions or states. This makes them very similar to “action” nouns – moving, for example, means more or less the same as movement, discovering as discovery. Differences are considered in the post 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.

The present post highlights the ways gerunds manage to be both noun-like and verb-like at the same time. The noun-like properties are the focus of the first section below, while the verb features are considered after that. The difference between gerunds and participles is fully analysed in the post 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”.

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SIMILARITIES BETWEEN GERUNDS AND NOUNS

There are two major noun features that gerunds share: sentence positions and use with articles.

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1. How Gerunds Act Like Nouns in Sentences

Nouns act in sentences in the following ways:

A. AS THE OBJECT/COMPLEMENT/SUBJECT OF A VERB

For definitions of these noun uses, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices. Here are some gerunds used in these noun positions:

(a) Succeeding in an examination involves knowing the topic well.

The verb here is involves. Its subject is the gerund succeeding and its object is the gerund knowing (the presence of the topic after the latter illustrates how gerunds can have their own object – or subject – when used in this way like a noun). Nouns that could be used in place of the two gerunds above are success and (good) knowledge (+ of).

The basic rule here is that an ordinary verb cannot be the subject or object of another verb; the highlighted words in (a) cannot be replaced directly by succeed and know. A complication is that a gerund is not always the right alternative: sometimes we must use an infinitive (with to) instead, sometimes that and an ordinary verb.

These alternatives are especially likely in the object and complement positions. Object-position that is mostly needed after main verbs of saying or thinking, such as MENTION and BELIEVE (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). Object-position to is typical after main verbs with a few other types of meaning, such as that of “wanting” (see 140. Verbs with Unexpected Grammar 2, #[c]). Complement-position verbs tend to need that or to according to the kind of subject in their sentence (for details, see the post on that and also 119. BE Before a “to” Verb).

Object-position verbs are especially likely to need the gerund form when the main verb contains a preposition, as in LOOK FORWARD TO or DEAL WITH (see 35. “to do” versus “to doing”), and are quite likely to do so when it does not, for example after ENJOY (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1) and INVOLVE (see 65. Verbs that Mean “must” or “can”). 

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B. AFTER A PREPOSITION.

A noun that is not a subject or object or complement is likely to be found after a preposition. Prepositions, indeed, are definable by their need for an accompanying noun (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). Sometimes, though, a verb meaning needs to go into this noun position, in which case a gerund or action noun is appropriate:

(b) A syringe is used for injection/injecting of fluids into living tissue.

Two prepositions that are especially likely to be followed by a verb meaning are for expressing a purpose, as above (but beware of the problems discussed in the post 60. Purpose Sentences with “For”), and by expressing a process or procedure (see 73. Ways of Saying How and 101. Add-On Participles).

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C. IN FRONT OF A NOUN

The ability of a noun to be used like an adjective before another noun is extensively discussed in the posts 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives,  58. Optional Apostrophe Endings and 136. Types of Description by Nouns. Gerunds readily act in the same way, e.g. a walking stick, a driving lesson, and opening times. Care must be taken, though, not to mix this use up with use A above. Consider the combination eating apples in this sentence:

(c) Eating apples makes a major difference.

Does this gerund eating have apples as its object, so that it is itself the subject of makes, creating the meaning “the eating of apples”, or does it describe apples, so that apples is the subject and the meaning is “apples for eating”?

The singular form of makes shows that the first of these – eating with an object – is the right interpretation. Unfortunately, this verb-form test helps only when the noun after the gerund is plural – when it is uncountable (as in cooking chocolate), both meanings are possible (see 124. Structures with a Double Meaning). One other test for deciding whether or not a gerund is adjectival is to see if the or a(n) is grammatically possible between it and the following noun: if it is, the gerund is not adjectival but has the noun as its object.

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2. How Gerunds Can be Used with Articles

Ability to be used alone with the – or other words like it such as a, this and their (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”) – is a very strong sign that a word is a noun (though not always – see 6 & 102. Adjectives with No Noun 1 /2). Gerunds can be used with the and its equivalents as easily as nouns can:

(d) (The) signing of the treaty took place at 11.00 a.m.

(e) The courage of Mandela led to his being imprisoned.

The optional use of the in (d) is a result of the preposition of after the gerund. Gerunds are just like nouns in being able to drop the when they are followed a preposition.

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SIMILARITIES BETWEEN GERUNDS AND VERBS

Gerunds can be recognised as verb-like not just from their meaning and appearance, but also from some of the grammar rules that apply to them. Most obviously, they can have subjects and objects of their own. The following points are also important to note.

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1. Ability to Have a Directly-Following Object

Elsewhere within this blog (31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1), it is shown how some nouns can have an object just like verbs, but only by adding a preposition (usually of). Examples are (the) removal of rubbish and (the) discovery of Neptune. Gerunds can be used like nouns in this way – (the) signing of the treaty – but they can also be used in a more verb-like way, with no preposition and no preceding the (e.g. signing the treaty). The two uses are often interchangeable.

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2. Combination with Adverbs

A major difference between nouns and verbs is in the kinds of “describing” word that they allow: adjectives with nouns and adverbs with verbs. Thus, the noun knowledge that could be used in sentence (a) above needs to be described by the adjective good, while know requires the adverb well. Gerunds can have either an adjective or an adverb, depending respectively on whether or not there is a preposition after them. Compare:

(f) (ADJ + of) The morning was taken up by (the) solemn signing of the treaty.

(g) (ADV) The morning was taken up by solemnly signing the treaty.

A free choice between these two possibilities is not always possible: the adjective use seems more common, especially at the start of a sentence.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE (GERUNDS)

Readers are invited to try the following exercise, which offers practice in using gerunds appropriately. There are four jumbled sentences to make sense of (answers at the end).

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1. expensive work is by to and travelling stressful car.

2. the a a dictionary language of learning using foreign facilitates.

3. without effectively skills practising cannot writing regularly develop.

4. being oven some by be very sterilized powders hot a placed can in.

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Answers

1. Travelling to work by car is stressful and expensive (or … expensive and stressful).

2. Using a dictionary facilitates the learning of a foreign language.

3. Writing skills cannot develop effectively without practising regularly.

4. Some powders can be sterilized by being placed in a very hot oven.

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