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What Is a Gerund?

Find out why “Thanksgiving” is a gerund.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #251
Thanksgiving is a gerund

Verby Gerunds

Now we’ll rephrase the sentence to have a more “verby” gerund: “Aardvark’s quickly defusing the bomb saved the day.” This time, the gerund phrase begins with a possessive noun, “Aardvark’s,” but that’s actually not what makes it more verby than nouny. In our earlier example of a nouny gerund, instead of “the defusing of the bomb”, we could also have said “Aardvark’s defusing of the bomb.” The real differences start to show up with the word that modifies “defusing”: It’s an adverb, “skillfullyquickly,” not an adjective. And adverbs usually modify verbs, not nouns. Finally, the object of the defusing, “the bomb,” comes right after the gerund, just like it would after an ordinary verb, not packaged inside a prepositional phrase like the one that started with “of” in the earlier example.

These characteristics of nouny and verby gerunds don’t mix, for the most part. You can’t say “The skillful defusing the bomb,” or “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing of the bomb.” Well, you could, but it sounds really bad. This is the kind of thing that linguists mean when they call something ungrammatical—it’s not that it sounds slangy or improper; it’s that it just doesn’t work!

Having nouny and verby gerunds allows some subtle shades of meaning to be conveyed. For example, “Aardvark’s skillful defusing of the bomb” suggests that we’re talking about something that actually happened, but “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing the bomb” could be referring to something real or hypothetical.

Gerunds in Compound Nouns...

You can do even more with gerunds. You can say, “Aardvark is good at defusing bombs,” or you can put the direct object “bombs” in front of the gerund to make a compound noun: “Aardvark is good at bomb-defusing.” You might be wondering why we say “bomb-defusing” instead of “bombs-defusing.” It’s just the rule for compound nouns in English: the noun that modifies the other noun is usually in the singular. One exception that comes to mind is “Thanksgiving”: We don’t call it “Thank-giving.”

Direct objects aren’t the only thing you can use to make a compound gerund. You can use objects of prepositions, too. For example, you could talk about sitting on a fence or “fence-sitting”; dancing in a square or “square-dancing”; breathing through your mouth or “mouth-breathing.”

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