A Gerund Is a Verb and a Noun in One

By Mark Nichol

A gerund is a verb that also functions as a noun. For example, one can say one is engaged in the act of writing, but one can also say that what one is doing is a thing called writing. A gerund can be part of the subject of a sentence (“Writing takes a lot of effort”) or part of the object (“I’ve done a lot of writing”).

Most writers generally employ gerunds without difficulty, but one aspect of their use can be confusing: the genitive case.

In the genitive case, the pronoun associated with the gerund takes a different form than it would when associated with the same word used as a verb. For example, when expressing that you listened to some people talking, you would write, “I heard them talking.” However, if you are emphasizing talking as a thing rather than an action, you would write, “I heard their talking.” Or, consider the difference between “They heard it breaking” (breaking is a verb) and “They heard its breaking” (breaking is a gerund).

Writers should also make a distinction with possessive forms of nouns: “The girl shouting awakened her parents” uses shouting as a verb (girl is the subject); in “The girl’s shouting awakened her parents,” however, shouting is a gerund (and shouting, not girl, is the subject).

In many instances, the difference in connotation is insignificant, but whether one employs a simple verb or uses it as a gerund can change the sense of the sentence.

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13 Responses to “A Gerund Is a Verb and a Noun in One”

  • Ellen

    Hello.

    Verbs are so tricky!

    In this example, isn’t “shouting” a verb form (present participle) working as an adjective:

    “The girl shouting awakened her parents.”

    (The shouting girl awakened her parents.)

    It’s always bothered me that a gerund and a present participle both end in i-n-g. They have different functions but look alike.

    Thanks!

    –Ellen

  • DiAnn Mills

    I love these posts. I look forward to them everyday. Many I tweet and many I save for future reference. Thanks for doing a great job of keeping us writers in line.

  • Heather Whipp

    I’m thinking that a gerund is the same grammatical label we called a verbal noun when I went to school in Australia. Is that the case? I was always wondering when to use a possessive pronoun(I hope that is a grammatical term you use or understand), e.g. ‘her wanting to go…’ ‘their going to town’…You explained it well. I must remember to say ‘gerund’ and not verbal noun.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Ellen:
    “The girl shouting awakened her parents.”
    “(The shouting girl awakened her parents.)”

    No, you need this: The girl’s shouting awakened her parents. This is because “shouting” is a gerund.

    Also: “It [has] always bothered me that a gerund and a present participle both end in i-n-g. They have different functions but look alike.”

    This is not true in most languages, and its is just a peculiarity of English. For example: In German, all gerunds end in “ung” but the present participles end in “d”, attached to the infinitive form of the verb. Thus since the verb “fahren” means “to drive”, then “Fahrung” and “fahrend” both translate into English as “driving”. [I have to let other people explain it in other languages, such as French, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, and Hebrew. The grammar in Yiddish is generally the same as it is in German.]

    German has those three “genders” for nouns, and all nouns are capitalized in writing. All gerunds are neuter, hence the correct form is “das Fahrung” for gerunds. On the other hand, all infinitives that are used as nouns are feminine, so that form is “die Fahren”. The present participles such as “fahrend” and “lehrend” are generally used as adjectives.

  • Dale A. Wood

    This mention of infinitives always brings a joke to mind – one that I think works only in English:

    “To do is to be. – Plato
    To be is to do. – Satre
    Doo be, doo be, doo be, doo. – Sinatra.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Verbs are so tricky!”

    Just try the verbs in Russian, Polish, Czech, or German. Be my guest!
    We have it easy in English because both the verbs and the nouns are very much simpler.
    During the time following the Norman Conquest, the verbs and nouns in Old English** became very much simplified, and then in the following centuries, the same happened in Norman French.

    **whose grammar came from Anglo-Saxon-Jute.

  • Ellen

    For Dale A. Wood:

    Hi, Dale.

    Regarding this you wrote:

    “To Ellen:
    ‘The girl shouting awakened her parents.’
    ‘(The shouting girl awakened her parents.)’

    No, you need this: The girl’s shouting awakened her parents. This is because “shouting” is a gerund.”

    The sentence is grammatical with or without the possessive. The word “shouting” is a gerund if it follows possessive “girl’s”, and it’s a present participle working as an adjective if it follows non-possessive “girl.”

    Here’s a similar example:

    The boy swinging the bat right now is my nephew.

    “Swinging the bat . . . ” modifies “boy.”

    In Mark’s original explanation, he wrote:

    “The girl shouting awakened her parents” uses shouting as a verb (girl is the subject)”

    But in that example, “shouting” isn’t working as a verb, but is working as a modifier. The verb (predicate) in the sentence is “awakened.”

    By the way, I did study Russian as a kid! Tough language.

    –Ellen

  • Sally

    @ Ellen (and DAW)
    ‘Shouting’ is a participle in apposition to ‘girl’ (if you prefer it is a participle used adjectivally).

    As DAW says, other languages form participles differently from participles.

  • Sally

    OOOPS

    “…other languages form participles differently from gerunds.”

  • Warsaw Will

    I’m sorry, but I find your two examples – “I heard their talking.” “They heard its breaking” very unnatural. There is surely a difference between sentences like:

    “She doesn’t like my/me smoking in the house.”
    “My smoking in the house annoys her.”
    “I appreciate your/you helping me with this”

    where Fowler and others argue that we should use a possessive, and the use of -ing forms after verbs of perception followed by an object:

    “I saw him smoking behind the bicycle shed” or “I heard them playing in the garden”. It would be very unusual (and I would say unnatural) to use a possessive with these, just as it would with “catch” and “find”

    I caught/found his smoking behind the bicycle shed???

    In these cases the -ing form is more like a participle acting as an object complement. We can use the standard “and is” test for object complements – “I saw him smoking” has the same meaning as “I saw him and he was smoking”.

    But if we do this with the usual type of possessive plus gerund construction, this doesn’t work: “She doesn’t like him smoking in the house” is has a completely different meaning from “She doesn’t like him and he is smoking in the house”.

    I tried Google Ngram with “I heard him talking”, “I heard them talking” and “I saw him smoking”, all of which get a fair number of hits, but absolutely none with possessive forms.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I’m not altogether comfortable with your use of “awake/awakened” as a transitive verb. Although it’s technically correct, the word “awake” comes from “I wake,” which is intransitive. The transitive verb is “wake.”

    A better example would have been “The girl shouting woke her parents” (I find that somewhat awkward, even stilted) and “The girl’s shouting woke her parents” (a much better construction).

  • Warsaw Will

    @Sally – you say: ‘Shouting’ is a participle in apposition to ‘girl’ (if you prefer it is a participle used adjectivally).

    It’s a matter of interpretation, but surely what (a)wakened the parents was the shouting of the girl, making it a gerund. So we’d usually say ‘The girl’s shouting’.

    And how can ‘shouting’ be in apposition to ‘girl’? Surely an appositive repeats the idea of the first noun in another way, such as “This is my colleague David”, where ‘David’ is the same person as ‘my colleague’. There is no such relationship between ‘girl’ and ‘shouting’.

    @Ellen – I don’t think the lack of a possessive ‘s really changes the grammar; it’s more a matter of formality. For example, when we use a noun or pronoun in object position in this sort of construction, it’s common to use a non-possessive form in informal speech – “They were wakened by the girl / him shouting” – although more formally we would say – “by the girl’s / his shouting”.

    It’s one of those grey areas. Perhaps this is why modern grammarians are tending to drop the gerund/participle distinction. In TEFL we mainly talk about ‘-ing forms’.

  • Alinat1336

    A native speaker tells you: the word “Fahrung” doesn’t exist in our complicate German language, the noun is “die Fahrt” ;D It’s kind of irregular.
    Words with “-ung” are always nouns. What you call “gerund” (Translation: Gerundium, but we don’t use this word in our language) is just an “substantiviertes Verb”, a verb, that has been converted into a noun. We use the same verb, but with a capital letter and add an article.
    Verb: fahren
    Substantiviertes Verb (= gerund): das Fahren
    Substantiv: die Fahrt
    Partizip 1 (=present participle: fahrend

    By the way: thanks for your explanations, I really needed them to do my English homework. 😉

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