What Is a Gerund?
Find out why “Thanksgiving” is a gerund.
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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?
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.