Uses of the -ing Participle

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader has questions about the following type of sentence:

“the education chief’s sudden resignation left him scrambling to find a replacement”.

This construction – “left her struggling to/has seen him battling…” is common. I haven’t been able to classify the -ing form in such sentences. I ruled out gerund (“his scrambling” can’t be right), and I don’t see it as a participle (as an adjective, ie, “the scrambling man”). But it if is a present continuous form of the verb, I can’t see which noun to trace it back to, let alone how it would conjugate with one. It’s offputting that “him/her” as on object pronoun immediately precedes it. And there is not the “is”, for the pairing in the present continuous. 

The present participle verb form that ends in –ing is a many-functioned thing and this reader is aware of them all.

Gerund
A gerund is a present participle used as a noun. As a noun, a gerund can do anything a noun can do.

Voting is the responsibility and privilege of citizenship. (subject of the verb)
Miriam does not enjoy skiing. (object of the verb)
Charlie has an A in reading. (object of a preposition)
His favorite defense is lying. (predicate nominative)

Present Participle used as an adjective
Like the past participle, the present participle can function as an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun.

a mining engineer. a leaning tower. a firing pin

The participle/adjective can follow the noun.

The man leaning against the car is an undercover detective.

Present participle used to form continuous tense
Used with one or more helping verbs, the present participle forms the progressive or continuous tenses.

He is building a hen house and we are helping him. (present continuous)

He has been building it for several months. (present-perfect continuous)

On October 30, he will have been building it for a year. (future-perfect continuous)

Now let’s look at the reader’s sentence

“the education chief’s sudden resignation left him scrambling to find a replacement”.

The reader correctly rules out a gerund (“his scrambling” can’t be right), but he incorrectly rules out the adjectival participle. Here, scrambling functions as a post-positional adjective qualifying the pronoun him.

While we’re at it, here are some additional facts about participles.

Dangling participles
A participle is said to dangle when it has no relation to the nearest subject.

Waiting for the phone call, the time crawled.

“Time” was not waiting for the phone to ring. Such a sentence is repaired by supplying an appropriate subject.

Waiting for the phone call, Dirk felt time crawl.

A gerund can also be left dangling.

Enjoyed in northern climes, many vacationers vote skiing their favorite winter sport.

Here, a past participle, enjoyed, is modifying a gerund, skiing, but the vacationers get in the way, leaving the gerund to dangle.

Better: Many vacationers vote skiing, enjoyed in northern climes, their favorite sport.

Modified participles
A participle that functions as an adjective is modified by an adverb.

We listened to the loudly roaring waves.

A participle that functions as a noun, i.e., a gerund, is qualified by an adjective.

Bottom the Weaver promised, if given the lion’s part, to produce gentle roaring.

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3 Responses to “Uses of the -ing Participle”

  • TheBlueBird11

    Oh Lord. This is WAAAAY too complicated. To me it’s a verb. He was scrambling…to do whatever. He was left scrambling…to do whatever. A helping verb. I don’t know. Why does it have to be so complicated.
    Thank God English is my native tongue. I’d never learn it otherwise!!

  • Maeve

    TheBlueBird11,
    That’s the trouble with trying to explain grammar. Trying to cover all possibilities in one lesson leads to overload and despair. Much better to do it in baby steps, one thing at a time, but here, I have a minimum word-count. 🙂

  • Isaac Ge

    @TheBlueBird11on Unfortunatedly, I think almost all ESL learners have to learn it through this complicated grammar framework instead of the instincts of native-speakers.

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