Gerunds: More Interesting Than You Thought


I suppose I should start the post by describing what a gerund is, in order for us all to be on the same page. In extremely non-technical terms, a gerund is a word-type that looks like a verb with an -ing suffix, but also looks like a noun because it can be the subject of a verb. For example, the following sentences contain gerunds (bolded):

Eating is enjoyable.
Reading Chomsky makes my head spin.
I can’t believe Mark’s cheating on the test doesn’t bother you.

These are tricky words to describe, and traditional grammars are often at odds with each other about how to treat them. Some people will tell you these are definitely verbs, but others will insist they are nouns. Some grammarians take a half-way view and say something like “gerunds are verbs that act like nouns”.

It turns out that this is one occasion where I will not be picking apart the traditional view, because things really are messy. Gerunds have weird mixed behaviour that makes them look a little bit like verbs, a little bit like nouns. They also have unique properties of their own that they don’t share with either nouns or verbs.

Reasons Why Gerunds Are Nouns

1. Gerunds can serve as subjects of verbs, which is something that otherwise only a noun can do.

  • Oatmeal is good for you. (Noun)
  • *Quickly is good for you. (Adverb)
  • *Delicious is good for you. (Adjective)
  • *Could have eaten is good for you (Verb)
  • Reading is good for you. (Gerund)

2. Conjunctions only join phrases of the same type, but gerunds and noun phrases can be joined together:

  • Eat and drink and be merry (all verbs)
  • Red and yellow are beautiful (all adjective)
  • *Red and drink are beautiful (mismatch)
  • *Eat and drink and yellow (mismatch)
  • The game was lost because of poor weather and John taking a red card. (noun/gerund, not a mismatch)

3. Another, slightly more specific example is in the sentence frame I believe X bothers you. It’s possible to put a noun phrase (NP) in the X position, but not a verb phrase (VP). I’ve bolded the X position in the following examples.

  • I believe that the colour of the new carpet bothers you. (X=NP)
  • I believe that your nut allergy bothers you. (X=NP)
  • *I believe that Rachel took a vacation bothers you. (X=VP)
  • I believe that Rachel taking a vacation bothers you. (X=Gerund)

4. Finally, gerunds can optionally have a possessive marker on the initial noun. Possessive is normally only marked on noun phrases, and you certainly can’t do this with a normal subject/verb pair.

  • I know that Susan wasting the budget bothers you.
  • I know that Susan’s wasting (of) the budget bothers you.
  • I know that you’re bothered Susan had wasted the budget.
  • *I know that you’re bothered Susan’s had wasted the budget.

This last example is slightly contrived because the phrase “Susan’s wasted the budget” is perfectly grammatical when the ‘s represent a contraction of “Susan has”, but it’s not grammatical if the ‘s is the possessive marker. It’s hard to see that difference though, so I had to force an ungrammatical reading onto you by fully spelling out an auxiliary “had”. That way the ‘s cannot possibly be interpreted as a grammatical contraction.

Reasons Why Gerunds Are Verbs

1. The most obvious connection is that gerunds are made from verb roots. Non-verbs cannot form gerunds. For example, we can make a gerund from the verb ‘to construct’, but not from the noun ‘construction’

  • The noise from the builders constructing a house bothered everyone.
  • *The noise from the builders constructioning a house bothered everyone.

2. Gerunds have an apparent “subject” and “object”. If a verb is transitive (has an object) or intransitive (no object), then so is the gerund. For instance, ‘fall’ is always intransitive, and ‘devour’ is always transitive.

  • I fell.
  • *I fell the stairs.
  • Falling can be dangerous.
  • *Falling the stairs can be dangerous.

  • John devoured pizza.
  • *John devoured.
  • Mary was disgusted by John devouring the pizza.
  • *Mary was disgusted by John devouring.

3. Gerunds can also be modified by adverbs, just like verbs.

  • We don’t like the idea of Tim soon quitting his job.
  • Quickly dividing the treasure is the best idea.

4. They can take a negative “not”, which normally does not negate nouns, but is used with verbs in some cases.

  • Dave not attending meetings annoys the committee.
  • Dave could not attend the meeting, which annoyed the committee.
  • *The not meeting attendance annoys the committee

A little note about this last example: You can find nouns apparently negated with “not” in a special case where you are making a contrast, such as “I like dogs and not cats”. However, in this case the “not” isn’t negating the noun “cats”, it is negating an implied verb phrase “I like cats”. If you like dog and “not cats”, then this sentence would mean “I like dogs and anything that is not a cat” but that’s not what it means. It means “I like dogs and it is not the case that I like cats”.

Reasons Why Gerunds Are Unique

1. The negative imperative of a verb is usually formed with don’t. On the other hand, a prohibitive (negative imperative) formed with a gerund uses no instead:

  • Don’t eat the last cupcake!
  • *No eat the last cupcake!
  • No walking on the grass!
  • *Don’t walking on the grass!

2. Gerunds are used with a special expression there’s no + gerund to express general state of affairs (sometimes with an extra modal verb like must or should).

  • There’s no denying it.
  • There’s no pleasing some people.
  • There’s no chewing gum in class.
  • There should be no talking during the exam.

3. Gerunds additionally appear with it’s in expressions of futility

  • It’s no use trying
  • It’s pointless arguing
  • It’s not worth mentioning

4. Unlike verbs, gerunds cannot take any tense marking, but they can take perfective auxiliary (maybe? after typing all these sentences out, I’m starting to lose my grammaticality judgements).

  • Paul arguing annoyed everyone.
  • *Paul arguinged annoyed everyone.
  • *Paul will arguing annoyed everyone.
  • ?Paul having argued annoyed everyone.

What To Do About All This?

So what are gerunds? Are they verbs or nouns? Well, kind of both. Gerunds have the internal characteristics of a verb phrase, but are distributed in sentences like noun phrases. This has made it difficult for both traditional grammar and modern linguistic theory to deal with gerunds.

As far as traditional grammar is concerned, gerunds are a problem because they don’t fit into the classic 8 Parts of Speech Theory. Gerunds have mixed behaviour, as I described in this post, and they aren’t a “person place or thing” nor are they obviously “action words” or an example of a  “linking verb”.

In linguistics, gerunds are a problem for syntactic theory, because they require positing phrase structure that doesn’t always fit neatly with the way that English is otherwise described. If a gerund is something with overall noun-like distributions in the syntax, then the top-most node in the gerund phrase must be a noun phrase. But the gerund clearly contain a verb-like thing inside, which gives us the general structure below:

Some linguists do not assign a single structure to gerunds. This paper gives different structures to gerunds with a possessive in them, and those without. Those without a possessive are called “clausal gerunds” in the paper, and they therefore have a top-most node which is a clause (labeled XP in the sentence tree). Those with the possessive are called “possessive gerunds” (go figure), and they have a topmost determiner phrase, which is what would otherwise be used for possessive noun phrases. Here’s what the full trees look like:

In traditional Kellogg-Reid diagrams, gerunds are notated with a line that slants downward and out like a step. The top step has the verbal root, and the bottom step has the -ing suffix. The gerund is attached to the sentence with a forked line. You can see examples over here if you like that kind of thing.

I just don’t understand that style of diagramming. Why is the -ing on it’s own line in a gerund? Does that add extra information somehow? Why the forked line? Participles, which also end in -ing, do not have the suffix separated, and they are drawn with curved line. Why? It all just feels so arbitrary. It looks more like a way of graphically representing part-of-speech, rather than being an actual diagram of sentence structure. But perhaps this is a rant best saved for another post.

In closing, here’s a meme I made:

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1 Comment

Filed under Linguistics

One response to “Gerunds: More Interesting Than You Thought

  1. I am liking this post. :)

    Liked by 1 person

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