20 June 2012
Grammar Bites: What is a gerund?
The word gerund may sound a bit like the name of a furry fantasy creature from a children’s TV show, but it is a fairly controversial grammatical term.
According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a gerund is “a word that ends in '–ing' which is made from a verb, and which is used like a noun”.
But why the funny name? The word gerund in English is derived from the Latin term gerundium, which means the same thing. Gerundium comes from the Latin verb gerundus, meaning ‘to be carried out’.
In the sentence ‘I love reading’ the verb is ‘love’ and the object is ‘reading’. Technically, the word ‘reading’ is the present participle of the verb ‘read’, but in this sentence it acts as a noun.
Another example of a gerund would be the word ‘learning’ in the sentence ‘Learning is a lifelong experience’.
Although the gerund looks exactly the same as the present participle form of the verb, it functions as a ‘verbal noun’ – in other words, it retains its verbal qualities, even though it is acting as a noun. It is for this reason that not everyone agrees that they should be considered fully fledged nouns.
Take the word ‘skating’. It can be used as:
- A noun (in which case it is called a gerund) – ‘Skating is strenuous’. Here, the word ‘skating’ can be qualified by an adjective such as ‘fast’ (Fast skating is strenuous), and it can have the definite article ‘the’ in front of it (The skating was fantastic). These are common characteristics of nouns, which is why in this context ‘skating’ is a gerund.
- An adjective (in which case it is called a gerundive) – ‘I love visiting the skating rink’. In this sentence, ‘skating’ qualifies the noun ‘rink’ in the same way as other adjectives (e.g. ‘round’, ‘public’) would.
It is generally fairly clear whether an –ing word is being used as a gerund or an adjective (a gerundive). If the word is the subject or object of a clause, it is a gerund. If it is being used to qualify a noun, it is an adjective.
According to Andrew Steeds, the PTC’s grammar tutor, there is some confusion about how to treat the gerund in the possessive form. A debate has been raging about this for some time and the jury is still out, but the lines tend to be drawn up between the ‘formal/standard’ position on one hand and the ‘informal’ position on the other.
For example, you would be less likely to hear people say ‘He does not like my singing’ than to read it. What you are more likely to hear is ‘He does not like me singing’, which formal grammatical usage would condemn as incorrect, claiming that if you replaced ‘me’ with a person’s name, say ‘John’, most people would say ‘He does not like John’s singing’.
Despite the force of the formal position, however, there is no clear rule, and there are different ways of considering the sentences. ‘He doesn’t like my singing’ could be read as ‘He doesn’t like the way that I sing’, while ‘He doesn’t like me singing’ reads more like ‘He doesn’t like me to sing’. Interestingly, if you were to introduce a phrase like ‘out of tune’ to the sentence, you are more likely to put it in front of ‘singing’ with ‘my’ (He doesn’t like my out-of-tune singing*) and after it with ‘me’ (He doesn’t like me singing out of tune). That’s because, in the first instance, ‘singing’ is operating more as a noun, and ‘out of tune’ therefore qualifies it as an adjective, whereas in the second it is operating more as a verb and ‘out of tune’ therefore modifies it as an adverb.
In another example, ‘I love that ballerina’s dancing’, is clearly saying that I love the way in which the ballerina dances, and the word ‘dancing’ is a gerund (if you substitute it with another word such as ‘outfit’, it’s easy to see that it’s operating as a noun). If the sentence read ‘I love that ballerina dancing’, it could mean that I love the ballerina, who is dancing – in which case the word ‘dancing’ would be a participle (arguably a gerundive).
* If you are wondering why the phrase ‘out of tune’ is written with hyphens in the first example and without hyphens in the second, look out for my next post, which will delve into the complexities of the hyphen.
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