Episode 251: November 22, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
Grammar Girl here, and I hope all my US listeners had a happy Thanksgiving, or as some like to say, a happy Turkey Day. Or as I like to think of it, a happy Gerund Appreciation Day. What better time to appreciate the English gerund than on a day that has been singled out for giving thanks, and whose name is a gerund—Thanksgiving?
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Review: What Are Gerunds?
I’ve talked about gerunds before, in the episode on common resume mistakes and the episode on possessives and gerunds, but I’ve never talked about what truly interesting words gerunds are. As I said in those episodes, a gerund is a noun formed by taking a verb and adding the suffix “-ing.” The gerund form of “give,” for example, is “giving.”
If you listened to the podcast on possessives and gerunds, you may remember that the “ing” form of a verb can also be a present participle, another funny-sounding name. This is always true, even for the most irregular verb in the language, “be.” The form “being” is both a gerund and a present participle.
The Difference Between Gerunds and Present Participles
So how can you tell whether you’re dealing with a gerund or a present participle? It’s not always easy. In fact, some linguists even argue that it doesn’t make sense to have different names for these verb forms, and that we should just call the “-ing” form the even longer and funnier name “gerund-participle (1).” For now, we’ll just stick with gerunds, and leave present participles for other episodes—such as the episode on dangling participles!
The gerund may be a noun formed from a verb, but that’s not the end of the story. Even though a gerund is a noun, sometimes it acts more like a noun, and sometimes it acts more like a verb.
Here’s a sentence with a really “nouny” gerund: “The skillful defusing of the bomb saved the day.” The gerund is “defusing,” and it is part of the gerund phrase “the skillful defusing of the bomb.” The gerund is acting particularly nouny in this sentence, on three counts.
First, the whole gerund phrase begins with the definite article, “the.” Definite articles usually come before nouns.
Second, “defusing” is modified by an adjective, “skillful,” instead of by an adverb. Adjectives usually modify nouns.
Third, the object of the “defusing” shows up in a prepositional phrase: “of the bomb.” “Of” is the preposition that heads the phrase, and prepositional phrases that start with “of” usually follow nouns.
Now we’ll rephrase the sentence to have a more “verby” gerund: “Aardvark’s quickly defusing the bomb saved the day.” This time, the gerund phrase begins with a possessive noun, “Aardvark’s,” but that’s actually not what makes it more verby than nouny. In our earlier example of a nouny gerund, instead of “the defusing of the bomb”, we could also have said “Aardvark’s defusing of the bomb.” The real differences start to show up with the word that modifies “defusing”: It’s an adverb, “
skillfullyquickly,” not an adjective. And adverbs usually modify verbs, not nouns. Finally, the object of the defusing, “the bomb,” comes right after the gerund, just like it would after an ordinary verb, not packaged inside a prepositional phrase like the one that started with “of” in the earlier example.
These characteristics of nouny and verby gerunds don’t mix, for the most part. You can’t say “The skillful defusing the bomb,” or “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing of the bomb.” Well, you could, but it sounds really bad. This is the kind of thing that linguists mean when they call something ungrammatical—it’s not that it sounds slangy or improper; it’s that it just doesn’t work!
Having nouny and verby gerunds allows some subtle shades of meaning to be conveyed. For example, “Aardvark’s skillful defusing of the bomb” suggests that we’re talking about something that actually happened, but “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing the bomb” could be referring to something real or hypothetical.
Gerunds in Compound Nouns...
You can do even more with gerunds. You can say, “Aardvark is good at defusing bombs,” or you can put the direct object “bombs” in front of the gerund to make a compound noun: “Aardvark is good at bomb-defusing.” You might be wondering why we say “bomb-defusing” instead of “bombs-defusing.” It’s just the rule for compound nouns in English: the noun that modifies the other noun is usually in the singular. One exception that comes to mind is “Thanksgiving”: We don’t call it “Thank-giving.”
Direct objects aren’t the only thing you can use to make a compound gerund. You can use objects of prepositions, too. For example, you could talk about sitting on a fence or “fence-sitting”; dancing in a square or “square-dancing”; breathing through your mouth or “mouth-breathing.”
...Sometimes Create Compound Verbs!
Now here’s what I think is the most interesting thing gerunds can do. These gerund-based compound nouns can create new verbs! Take a compound gerund like “cherry-picking.” It’s composed of two parts: “cherry” and “picking.” But you can also break it into two parts like this: “cherrypick,” plus the suffix “-ing.” And since “-ing” is a suffix for verbs, “cherry-pick” must be a verb, right? Presto! A new verb is born, and we can talk about bad scientists who cherry-pick their data, and insurance companies that cherry-pick the healthiest customers.
Linguists call this kind of process reanalysis. It also happens with agentive verbal nouns such as “bartender” and “babysitter,” and has given us numerous verbs such as “bartend,” “babysit,” “windsurf,” and “Christmas-shop.” The new verbs aren’t always pretty; one of my least favorites is “problem-solve.”
Not every compound noun with a gerund gets reanalyzed, though. I would have gotten some pretty strange looks if my family had gathered around the dinner table yesterday and I had said, “Let us thanks-give” instead of “Let us give thanks.”
And I did give thanks for all of you who listen to the show every week.
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and I’m Mignon Fogarty.
- Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 80-83.