-Ing verbals

I’m sure plenty of you completed that first word as “fucking,” because verbals are beastly things that confuse students (and teachers!) everywhere. I wouldn’t disagree with you, if you did. Onward, shall we?

There are two types of -ing verbals: participles and gerunds. I won’t delve into the controversy surrounding gerunds (“do they really exist?”) because a) I’m not a linguist and b) it doesn’t matter what they’re called; it only matters how they function, and that isn’t in question. If you want to go digging for that information on your own, have at it. I can point to Lynn M. Berk’s English Syntax: From Word to Discourse as one place to read up on it.

(Yes, I know, there are three types of verbals. However, I’m only discussing the two that folks confuse. The third one’s entirely different.)

All right, then. -Ing verbals can function either as modifiers or as nouns (things). Did you know there’s controversy over how to define “noun?” Some people dislike saying “person, place, or thing” because they think that abstract concepts aren’t “things.” Here’s where I admit that I’m one of those oddballs who, even as a student, had no problem making the conceptual leap from “table” (a concrete thing) to “honesty” (an abstract concept) and understanding that those are both nouns, because they name things (either concrete or abstract). That’s how weird I was and still am. But I’m about to digress again. Back to the subject: -ing verbals.

The -ing form of any verb is called a participle. Specifically, it’s a present participle. That’s the form we use when we want to talk about an ongoing (SEE? -ING!) action.

He was running from the zombies.

She was laughing at him.

They have been eating that cake over the past week, and there’s still half of it left.

I’m not going to go into the various verb tenses that use -ing, because, again, that’s not the subject here. It’s enough for our purposes to say that -ing verb forms are present participles.

Now, here’s where the confusion begins. One type of -ing verbal is also called a participle (without “present” tacked in front). Earlier I said that -ing verbals can function as either modifiers or nouns. The present participle (verb form) can be a participle (verbal) that functions as a modifier (adjective).

That laughing baby kept the whole train car entertained for hours.

In that example, “laughing” is a participle (the verbal that functions as a modifier) because it describes the baby.

Now, to make things worse, the -ing form can also be the verbal called a gerund, which functions as a noun. You can’t tell by looking at the word. You have to dissect the sentence and discover the function of the verbal before you can know which one it is.

Laughing is good for one’s health.

In that example, “laughing” is the subject of the sentence. That makes it a gerund, because only nouns can function as the subject of a clause (and a sentence is a type of clause, having a subject and a verb).

Let’s try a few more.

The person running for office must commit to attending three meetings per week.

“Running” is a participle (verbal) because it describes the person: they’re the one that’s running for office.

“Attending” is a gerund, because it functions like a noun–in this case, the noun that’s the object of the preposition “to.”

And what will they be attending? “Meetings.” Another gerund, functioning as a noun.

BUT WAIT! We just said “attending” was a gerund. How can a gerund be the object of another gerund?

Syntax and semantics, baby. Your high school English teacher probably didn’t tell you anything about those. I’ll bet it’s because they weren’t required to study either one to get their teaching certificate, and because those aren’t typically touched on in the average language arts textbook. (How do I know? I have one of those certificates. I didn’t have to study syntax or semantics to get it.) Syntax is about where words are in relation to one another. Semantics is about the sense or meaning we take from where the words are.

“Attending” functions as the object of the preposition “to” (as a verbal) AND we know that it’s also a verb (this is what I’ll bet your teacher never explained!) so there’s action implied, AND that action (attending something) in this case requires an object (the thing being attended), so we know that “meetings” fills that role in the structure of the sentence. Words can fit into more than one box at a time, as it were. That verb form “attending” can indeed be both a noun AND a verb.


[Special thanks go to Dan Sosnoski and Lisa McLendon for helping me ensure correctness.]

[And ja, there’s another gerund in that statement. I’ll let you find it on your own.]

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