Participles and Gerunds

How to tell participles from gerunds (and adjectives). 

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #380

Grammar Pop Screenshots

Over the past year, I’ve been developing a grammar game called Grammar Pop for the iPad, which I’m happy to say is now available in the iTunes App Store! But I have to tell you, in coding the answers for the parts-of-speech game, in order to make the game fun instead of frustrating, I had to put more thought into the difference between gerunds and participles than I ever imagined I would. So that’s the topic we’re going to talk about today. 

Why Do We Have Different Names for Them?

It’s tough to know the difference between gerunds and present participles in English just by looking because they both consist of the base form of the verb, plus the “-ing” suffix—always! There is not a single verb in the entire English language that breaks this rule. Even the most irregular verbs of all, “be” and “go,” fall in line. Their gerunds and present participles are “being” and “going.” 

Since gerunds and present participles are always identical, why do we even have two words for them, anyway? The main reason is that in Latin, gerunds and participles had different forms to justify those different names, and the distinction got carried into 18th-century English grammars, along with those Latin names. If you think that’s a silly and outdated reason, you’re not alone. The authors of the massive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language argue that having two words doesn’t make sense, and they just call the “-ing” form the gerund-participle. We’re not going to go that far, though. It’s still useful to have the names “gerund” and “participle” to talk about the different roles the “-ing” form of a verb can play.

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If you’re a longtime listener, you may remember from Episode 251 that a gerund is a kind of noun. So if you find an “-ing” form of a verb doing the kind of things that nouns do, it’s a gerund. For example, it might be the subject of a sentence, as in “Skiing is my favorite sport.” It might be the object of a verb, as in “I love skiing!” Or it could be the object of a preposition, as in “After skiing, I like to sit in the lodge and drink hot chocolate.” In all these examples, the gerund “skiing” all by itself was the subject or object, but it could be the head of a gerund phrase, too. For example, I could say , “Skiing with my husband on a weekday while everyone else is working is awesome.” The simple subject is just “skiing,” but the complete subject is “skiing with my husband on a weekday while everyone else is working.” 

Present Participles

Now let’s move on to present participles. Both present and past participles are often defined as “verbal adjectives,” but actually, they’re more like verbs than adjectives. The “-ing” verb in progressive tenses is a participle. Take a sentence such as “Aardvark was skiing when you called.” You might be wondering, “What’s the problem? ‘Skiing’ looks like an adjective in the verb phrase ‘was skiing’.” It’s true that you could replace “skiing” with a bona fide adjective, such as “happy,” and still have a grammatical sentence. “Aardvark was happy when you called.” But look closer. “Happy” can do things as an adjective that “skiing” can’t. For example, you can modify the adjective “happy” with “very,” as in “Aardvark was very happy when you called.” You can’t do that with “skiing.” You can’t say, “Aardvark was very skiing when you called.” 

What about a word like “forgiving”? Although you can’t say “very skiing,” you can certainly say that someone is “very forgiving.” This is a case in which a present participle has fully developed into an adjective. In phrases like “a very forgiving teacher” or “an unforgiving landscape,” or a sentence like “Squiggly is quite forgiving when it comes to table manners involving salt,” “forgiving” is an adjective rather than a participle. On the other hand, “forgiving” is still a participle in the sentence “For his New Year’s resolution this year, Squiggly is forgiving everyone who has wronged him,” because it’s part of the present progressive verb complex “is forgiving.” You can’t say “Squiggly is very forgiving everyone who has wronged him.”

Two Confusing Situations

Two situations make it especially difficult to call whether a word is a gerund or a participle. One is when you have a gerund or participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence. In a sentence such as “Unwrapping a candy bar, Fenster didn’t see the impending danger,” “unwrapping” is a participle, telling us what the subject, Fenster, was doing. With just one small change, though, “unwrapping” becomes a gerund. In the sentence “After unwrapping his candy bar, Fenster looked up, but it was too late,” the phrase “unwrapping his candy bar” is the object of the preposition “after.” As the object of a preposition, this is a gerund phrase.

  • Unwrapping a candy bar, Fenster didn’t see the impending danger. (participle)
  • After unwrapping his candy bar, Fenster looked up. (gerund)

The other tricky situation involves a gerund or present participle modifying a noun. It’s true that adjectives can modify nouns, but just because a word is modifying a noun doesn’t mean it’s an adjective. For example, “credit” is a noun, even in the compound noun “credit card.” So let’s take an example like “skiing vacation.” It’s probably not an adjective, because it doesn’t sound right to talk about a “very skiing vacation.” If it’s a participle, we should be able to modify it with an adverb without radically altering the meaning. So let’s try it: “a fantastically skiing vacation.” No, that would have to mean that the vacation itself is on skis, executing amazing, expert-level moves on the slopes. That’s not right. Therefore, “skiing” in this case is not a participle, but a gerund. Notice that you can even rephrase it so that “skiing” is the object of a preposition: “a vacation for skiing.” This clinches the case that “skiing” is a gerund here. 

  • We took a skiing vacation. (a vacation for skiing—gerund)
  • We saw a skiing monkey. (the monkey who is skiing—participle)

To work through another example, take the phrase “falling snow.” You can’t say “very falling snow,” so it’s probably not an adjective. However, you can modify “falling” with an adverb: “gently falling snow.” So we can conclude that “falling” is a participle. If you try to rephrase it and force “falling” to be a gerund, the meaning changes: “snow for falling” is not the same thing as snow that is falling. In fact, I don’t even know what snow for falling would be. 

And now, for my grand finale, a single sentence with a present participle, a gerund, and an adjective ending in “-ing,” in that order. Here we go:

Wrapping up, I’d like to thank you for patiently listening to this episode on a very confusing topic!

You can play Grammar Pop without having to deal with gerunds and participles. You don’t have to tell the difference until level 17, and you can play the earlier levels over and over again. But if you’re up for the challenge, it’s there waiting for you.

Grammar PopGet Grammar Pop today in the iPad App Store. It has 11 parts of speech, 28 levels, and includes more than 14,000 words. It’s $1.99 and it’s the full game—no annoying in-app purchases.

Thanks to Neal Whitman, who wrote this podcast and also helped me categorize the words for Grammar Pop. He was a huge help. Neal has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. Thanks, Neal.

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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