Gerunds vs. participles

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In some comments on yesterday's "Possessive with gerund" post, the traditional distinction between gerunds and present participles was assumed. Because all English "gerunds" and all English "present participles" have exactly the same form, namely VERB+ing, and because the space of constructions where these forms appear is large and not obviously subject to binary division, my few attempts as a schoolboy to distinguish the two in English were mostly random guesses. I always suspected that the teacher's answer key had no better foundation.

Therefore I was happy when Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, presented a clear and compelling argument that "A distinction between gerund and present participle can't be sustained" (pp. 80-83 and 1220-1222). They therefore use the merged category "gerund-participle". I hope that most of you will be as happy about this development as I was.

The core examples of the present participle are its uses as a modifier or predicative in sentences like those given in CGEL 3 [14]:

The train is now approaching Platform 3.
The train approaching Platform 3 is the 11.20 to Bath.
He threw it in the path of an approaching train.

The core examples of the gerund are its uses as the verbal head of a noun-like construction in sentences like those in CGEL 3 [19]:

Destroying the files was a serious mistake.
I regret destroying the files.

CGEL:

Historically the gerund and present participle of traditional grammar have different sources, but in Modern English, the forms are identical. No verb shows any difference in form in the constructions of [14] and [19], not even be. The historical difference is of no relevance to the analysis of the current inflectional system […] This grammar also takes the view that even from the point of view of syntax (as opposed to inflection) the distinction between gerund and present participle is not viable, and we will therefore also not talk of gerund and present participle constructions […]

I'll sketch CGEL's grammatical arguments in a later post — or perhaps Geoff Pullum will step in. But for now, I thought I'd just put the idea on the table, for the sake of everyone who was as baffled by gerundology as I was.



42 Comments

  1. Henning Makholm said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    I believe the rule is that you translate the sentence into Latin and see which form you get there. Cannot see how that could have ever confused you.

    (But what if your Latin translation ends up using accusative-with-infinitive or something else that is neither gerund nor participle? Simple: that means that it is wrong to use -ing in English in that sentence).

    [(myl) If I recall one of the litanies that Mr. Mansur made me memorize in second-year Latin, this jocular suggestion would rule out all uses as subjects (e.g. "Translating into Latin solves the problem"), since the gerund in Latin couldn't be used in the nominative.]

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Gerunds vs. participles [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    […] Language Log » Gerunds vs. participles languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2639 – view page – cached In some comments on yesterday's "Possessive with gerund" post, the traditional distinction between gerunds and present participles was assumed. Tweets about this link […]

  3. language hat said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I too am glad to hear this, though of course I approve of Henning Makholm's solution.

  4. The Ridger said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Yes, the "ing" is one of three forms (a noun, a verb-used-relatively, or a verbal-adjective-that-may-be-used-relatively-or-attributively — the latter two either with or without a relative pronoun) isn't an easy case to defend, or explain.

    It's easier to identify these usages (does it govern its complement like a verb or a noun (wearing green vs the wearing of the green), but since those phrases function like nouns it's hard to explain when to use one and when to use the other.

  5. Randy Alexander said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Now how can we get this into the grammar textbooks that English-speaking children are studying?

  6. Joe said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Of course, now the problem is distinguishing the gerund-participle from gerundials (nouns ending in -ing) and from participial adjectives (adjectives ending in -ing), especially when diagnostics give mixed results (there's no telling him).

  7. Idiotes said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    I always thought that the difference is about the meaning. A gerund as a way to describe the action itself (as a noun) vs. present participle to describe a subject in the process of that action.

    Using The Ridger's example – 'Jack said that wearing green is good.' vs. 'Jack came home wearing green.'

    And coming to this point, I would say that the possessive-with-gerund formation occurs due to the gerund's being an independent noun, bringing the need to refer to the subject using the possessive. ['Jack's wearing green was very inappropriate' vs. 'Jack wearing green is a very amusing sight to see.']

  8. Joe said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    Sorry to double post, but wouldn't the very alternation between the genitive and the accusative also point to a problem in determing whether a word ending in -ing was a noun form or a verb form? And for those interested in the issue, Bas Aarts's Syntactic Gradience has some interesting discussions.

  9. Henning Makholm said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    this jocular suggestion would rule out all uses as subjects (e.g. "Translating into Latin solves the problem"), since the gerund in Latin couldn't be used in the nominative.

    See, that shows the power of my approach. If we restricted ourselves to observing the spontaneous utterances of monolingual native speakers, we would never have been able to discover the fact that *"Translating into Latin solves the problem" is incorrect English.

  10. John said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Thank you! I bluffed this distinction through my entire education, nice to know I wasn't alone. Basically I worked out if it was being used more like a noun or an adjective, and based it on that.

    But like Joe said above, what about participial adjectives?

  11. onymous said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I have a question that's a bit off-topic, but related to the use of gerund-participles: is there any logic in English to which verbs can work with gerund-participles and which with infinitives? For instance, "I want to go" is grammatical but "I want going" isn't; "I enjoy reading" works, but not "I enjoy to read"; "I like to read" or "I like reading" is fine. Are these just accidents of history, or is there some underlying sense to the categorization that I can't figure out? (This came up in a blog discussion elsewhere on the internet recently, and I tried searching the Language Log archives but didn't come up with anything relevant.)

  12. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    The train is now approaching Platform 3.
    The train approaching Platform 3 is the 11.20 to Bath.
    He threw it in the path of an approaching train.

    Translated into Albanian:
    Treni tani është duke ju afruar platformës 3.
    Treni që po i afrohet platformës 3 është ai i 11 e 20-tës për në Bath
    Ai e hodhi në shinat e një treni në afrim e sipër

    Translated into Italian
    Il treno si sta avvicinando alla piattaforma 3.
    Il treno in avvicinamento alla piattaforma 3 è il 11,20 per Bath.
    Lo gettò nel percorso di un treno in avvicinamento.

    The suffix "in" instead to be placed at the beginning, it is placed at the end of the word, behind. They are arranged in a manner that is opposite to previous languages. It's the main rule of the English and, I think, It's against of how the brain codes concepts and stores memories.

  13. Dan T. said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    So, in the traditional view "The train approaching Platform 3 is the 11.20 to Bath." uses "approaching" as a participle, while "Approaching Platform 3 was a mistake." uses it as a gerund? I don't blame you for finding the distinction very confusing.

    However, I'd rather approach Platform 9 3/4, so I can get the train to Hogwarts!

  14. Troy S. said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    The whole class of "verbal nouns" is pretty murky. Thankfully, there aren't many people offering prescriptions on the difference between, say, the infinitive and the supine in English.

    On a slightly related note, I've noticed a tendency for many people to not distinguish between the past tense verbs and adjectives formed from them: e.g. blessèd vs. blessed in speech.

    Is this a dialectal issue or a historic trend or something else?

  15. C Thornett said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    This might be a good point at which to bring up another present participle use in British English: 'x needs/wants y-ing', where y-ing takes the place of 'to be y-ed'. For example, my hair needs washing, the lawn wants mowing, those papers want correcting.

    My understanding is that 'present participle' is the most general term, denoting the -ing form of a verb however it is used, including continuous/progressive verbs, but that a gerund is a present participle used as a noun. (Many ESL/EFL textbooks now simply refer to '-ing verbs'.)

  16. John Lawler said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    @C Thornett:
    You may be surprised to find out that there is a construction exactly like this in American English, except that it uses the past participle form. For instance, one might see (as I have) written in dust with a fingertip on a car's back window: "This car needs washed".

    It is a local variant, but common enough in the Midwest to be familiar, at least. Need is the usual governing verb; I've never seen or heard it with want.

  17. The Ridger said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    @onymous: No.

    It's completely idiosyncratic; it doesn't depend on meaning or even etymology. English isn't alone in that (most Russian verbs of speech take a dative, but a few take a genitive), but that's little comfort, I know.

    A designed language might be regular that way, but real ones don't seem to be (she said to cover her bases).

  18. The Ridger said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    @ C Thornet, John Lawler: both of those are on both sides of the Atlantic. The 'needs washed' in common in Scotland and Pennsylvania and areas around it mostly west and north; 'needs cutting' is very widespread in the US.

  19. AJD said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    John Lawler—wants washed is at least reported in Western (and Central?) Pennsylvania; see e.g. this paper.

    There is a difference between the participial and gerundive uses of -ing, though, having to do with the relative frequency of the -ing and -in' pronunciations. -In' is used a higher percentage of the time for participial -ing than for gerunding -ing.

  20. Sili said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    I too am glad to hear this, though of course I approve of Henning Makholm's solution.

    Really? I thought you were a Greekoid rather than a Latinist.

    Anyway, are there really any trains terminating in Bath? It's a lovely city, but most trains stop in Bristol (Temple Meads) and Paddington.

  21. empty said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    His hair needs mussed.

  22. groki said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    I'll sketch CGEL's grammatical arguments in a later post — or perhaps Geoff Pullum will step in. But for now, I thought I'd just put the idea on the table, for the sake of everyone who was as baffled by gerundology as I was.

    you or him sketching the arguments will be much appreciated by another bafflee here. to me, the g-vs-p distinction does seem to appear in the "object case for subject of gerund" rule:

    1) Him approaching the platform surprised us.
    2) He approaching the platform surprised us.

    my amateur analysis of the distinction–which I hope the sketch can help correct–is:
    – in 1, "approaching" leans gerund-y and requires that its subject (if stated, so ignoring the possessive "his" possibility) to be in "object" case.
    – while in 2, "approaching" leans particple-y as a predicate of "He."

  23. James Enge said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    Eh. I'm not sure I can share in your joy. Whatever you call them, it seems to me that gerunds and participles perform different functions. The fact that they are the same in form is irrelevant. Homonymy is not identity.

    I'm not typing this in a prescriptive rage, by the way; it just seems to me that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

    [(myl) It's often useful to make distinctions among things that seem superficially indistinguishable — though an inflectional distinction that is systematically never marked on any word is a bit harder to argue for than (say) the notion that the pole that holds up a tent and a Pole who hails from Warsaw are named by different words that happen to sound the same. A mere (though clear) difference in function would probably not be enough — it's pretty clear that English doesn't have a vocative case, for example, even though it's clear enough that names and other nouns are sometimes used with vocative function.

    Huddleston and Pullum argue, in addition, that the traditional functional distinction between gerunds and present participles is not a coherent one, and should be abandoned. That's not the same as arguing that all -ing forms are gerund-participles — this is clearly false — or there are no functional distinctions among uses of gerund-participles — H & P retain or propose several, just not anything that's closely congruent with the traditional split.]

  24. Ellen K. said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    Groki, your second sentence:

    2) He approaching the platform surprised us.

    For me, that's ungrammatical, and I can't think what it could mean. Unless, that is, one adds commas:

    He, approaching the platform, surprised us.

    Thus, I am unable to follow the distinction you are trying to make.

  25. Pflaumbaumq said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    It's easy to find cast-iron examples of 'gerund' and 'participle' usage, as Mark and some commenters have done, but the problem is the massive grey area between them.

    To my non-syntactically-trained mind at least, gerunds and participles are closely linked in sense. Greek sometimes uses the infinitive with the article to do the job of gerund, but quite often seems to use participles. E.g. you'd say something like "With their having-been-dug canals they had made the river shallower ", where the meaning feels more like "by digging the canals they had made the river shallower" than "they had made the river shallower with the canals they had dug".

    I don't like gerund-participle as a term though… it's a mouthful and the rhythm's awkward. What's wrong with 'ing-form'?

  26. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Yes, I'm very much looking forward to the post laying out evidence in favor of the view that the distinction between gerund and present participle for the -ing forms is not viable.

    [(myl) If your enthusiasm extends to actual meat-space coordinate transformation, you could go to the library and check out the discussion starting on p. 1220 of CGEL. Alternatively, you may be able to follow most of it using Amazon's "Search Inside" feature. Or you could buy the book…

    But I *will* get to it at some point.]

  27. language hat said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    Really? I thought you were a Greekoid rather than a Latinist.

    Oh, I am, I am, but we're dealing with distinctions borrowed from Latin here, so we need to use Latin as a reference. I'm working on importing the aorist into English grammar, never fear.

  28. groki said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    @Ellen K.

    reading myl's functional distinctions among uses of gerund-participles — H & P retain or propose several, I suspect that H & P will put my example in its place. :)

    but to attempt to clarify: in my idiolect (idiography?), the commas in 2 are customary but not necessary, and your comma'd sense is the sense I meant. the distinction I was going for is between:

    (a) the "nouny" function of the "-ing" phrase in 1,
    serving as the subject of the sentence, with the "-ing" verb also having a grammatical subject–"Him"–that must nevertheless be in object form; and

    (b) the "adjectival" function of the "-ing" phrase in 2,
    modifying the subject "He".

    ie, (a) seems like a traditional gerund and (b) like a traditional participle, with the different cases of "Him/He" highlighting the distinction.

    in any event, I will be checking the library tomorrow, and I look forward to H & P's updated account.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Side point, but is the he/him distinction here further proof that the accusative is the default form of the pronoun in English?

    (1) His constant(ly) moaning was something we were getting used to.

    (2) Him constantly moaning was something we were getting used to.

    (3) *He constantly moaning was something we were getting used to.

  30. Lazar said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    I agree with James Enge – I've never found the distinction between English gerunds and participles to be baffling or incoherent, and I think it's a useful distinction to make. In teaching grammar, you'll still have to explain the two functions, but now you'll also have to explain why they both have this cumbersome compound name.

  31. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    myl: I appreciate the cite, and I've just recalled the copy from my school's library. I should get it soon, but better than the book by itself is the wisdom of Language Log posters and commentators about it.

  32. John Lawler said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    For those who feel that "participle" should be retained as a grammatical category in English, one should bear in mind that the Latin grammarians didn't distinguish between adjectives and nouns. "Participium" was one of the eight parts of speech. "Adjectivum" was just a variety of noun.

    From Donatus, Ars Minor:
    Partes orationis quot sunt?
    Octo.
    Quae?
    Nomen pronomen verbum adverbium
    participium coniunctio praepositio interiectio.

  33. D.O. said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 3:02 am

    John Lawler

    …Latin grammarians didn't distinguish between adjectives and nouns

    Now we know why the Empire fell.

  34. AlexB said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    @ Pflaumbaum: why not call it a gerundiple?

  35. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 5:06 am

    Gerundiple is a bit less cumbersome… but maybe we should just embrace the cumbersomeness and call it a cummerbund.

  36. Dan T. said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    "Aorist" sounds like somebody who plays some instrument or operates some device named an "Aor", perhaps a relative of the "Aeolipile".

  37. NW said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    I am constantly mentioning (in another place) that this distinction is untenable, and that by contrast the traditional verb/noun 'gerund' hides a very clear syntactic difference between verb and noun uses:

    The careless riding of skateboards is forbidden. [nouns take articles, adjectives, and oblique patients]

    Carelessly riding skateboards is forbidden. [verbs takes adverbs, objects, but not articles]

    And yes, Pflaumbaum, 'Me riding a skateboard surprised John' is one of the principal pieces of evidence that the accusative is the default case.

  38. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    OK, I've had a look at CGEL about abolishing the distinction between gerund and participle, and I have to admit that I didn't find the discussion particularly clear or persuasive.

    Page 1220 states "We argued in Ch. 3, §1.4, that there is no justification for making any inflectional distinction: all the underline forms [scil. gerund and present participle] belong to a single inflectional category."

    The cited section is found on p. 82 and states: "Historically the gerund and present participle of traditional grammar have different sources, but in Modern English the forms are identical. No verb shows any difference in form in the constructions of [14] and [19], not even *be*." This lack of difference in form is a critical part of CGEL's argument, for it is reiterated in a sub-section summary paragraph on p. 1222 ("In neither case is there any difference in form").

    However, there is evidence that such an inflectional distinction is preserved in speech, in that participles show a greater tendency to "drop the g" than gerunds. I don't have a cite for these studies handy, but they've been cited in comment threads on Language Log. CGEL neither acknowledges this counter-evidence nor argues against it. If this counter-evidence holds up, it would dispose of the question in favor of a distinction. Perhaps the counter-evidence can be handled satisfactorily; I don't see how that can be done at this moment, but in any case CGEL did not do it. CGEL's omission of material counter-evidence renders its conclusion (IMHO) unpersuasive.

    Furthermore, CGEL p. 1220 concedes that there is a difference: "There is one respect in which 'gerund' and 'present participle' clauses differ in their internal form: with 'gerunds' the subject may take genitive case, …, but with 'present participles' the genitive is impossible…." That sounds like a viable distinction to me! To be sure, CGEL goes on to argue that it does not help us in "constructions where no subject is permitted," and CGEL proposes a *different* distinction among their gerund-participials ("complement" vs. "non-complement"). So no matter whose analysis we accept, we're still stuck with having to make a distinction among gerund-participials.

  39. iching said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 3:52 am

    Stephen C. Carlson quoted from CGEL: "Historically the gerund and present participle of traditional grammar have different sources, but in Modern English the forms are identical". As a non-linguist I am fascinated by this. Would someone be able to briefly go into more detail and perhaps provide an example?

  40. Shqiptar said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    @Atmir Ilias
    …The train is now approaching Platform 3.
    …Translated into Albanian:
    …Treni tani është duke ju afruar platformës 3.

    Since this is a language forum, let's try to write Albanian correctly. The correct spelling has 'iu' instead of 'ju' (for the non-speakers, these are essentially articles that stand for pronouns).
    Treni tani është duke iu afruar platformës 3.

    And more pertinent to the topic, the simplest translation in Albanian would avoid the gerund/participle issue by using the present continuous tense (in Albanian rendered by addition of 'po' in front of the verb) which, incidentally, is the tense you used for the Italian translation (sta avvicinando):
    Treni tani po i afrohet platformës 3.

  41. Gayathri Narayan said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 12:30 am

    A very delayed response this – but, I'd like to say a couple of things: 1. Translation is a good way of finding out if an -ing word is a gerund or a participle – but how would you help people who didn't know Latin (or Greek, or a related lang.); and how would it help people who didn't have the concept of 'gerund' in their native/most used tongue? (i'm talking about teaching the concept to non-native speakers – and I do agree that teaching this difference is important at least in the early stages, moving on to usage aspects in the later stages). 2. I don't know if the accusative is the 'default' form. For some reason, native speakers tend to interchange the accusative and the nominative (sometimes the genitive) forms: Consider: Between you and I,…invited you and he..etc where the accusative is required, and sentences such as "It's her I saw at the window", or the accusative-before-genitive (examples of which we've discussed), where, formally, the genitive would have to be used before the gerund. 2. Shqiptar – the participial form (V-ing) is most importantly used for the continuous tenses. This is the use/construction first taught to children learning English as an ESL. So, the participle is not distinct from a 'present continuous' tense form (be + V-ing). It is only later that we teach children that it can be used as an adjective or in reduced clauses. So whether it is in Albanian or in English the train "is (still) approaching Platform 3" via the present continuous tense only! 3. When we use "busy" or "fed up (with) or "have difficulty (in)" we know that a V-ing follows: "…busy doing/finishing…","…fed up telling…", "… had difficulty getting…" and so on. Now in these sentences, a preposition can be introduced after the expressions: "busy in/with", fed up of", "have difficulty in/with" If a preposition is used, the verb following will be a gerund (if a verb follows) – we could say it's a gerund because we could substitute the V-ing with a noun: 'busy with the project', 'fed up with/of the lies'; 'difficulty in/with the homework'. My question is, is the avoidance of the preposition in the expressions a modern-day phenomenon? If not, and even if, should we consider the -ing of sentences such as: "She is busy making the cake; I have difficulty locating the place; I'm fed up repeating myself" gerunds or participles – we'd say they are gerunds if the prepositions are implied; but they also seem to be acting as complements of the expressions, qualifying them ( acting as reduced adverbial clauses). Participles are used in reduced adverbials(She could not attend the conference as she was ill => Being ill, she could not attend the conference) – so, are these -ing forms Gerunds, or Participles?

  42. SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence « English 109 said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    […] The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the -ing form of the verb the gerund-participle. […]

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