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Gerunds and -ing words in English

Gerunds, verbal nouns, present participles all ending in -ing

 See also: Consecutive verbs: gerund or infinitive?

1. The different types of word ending in -ing

 The English language does not use many grammatical "endings", but  some of those it does use have several different functions. The  -ing ending is one of them. Words ending in -ing can be gerunds, verbal nouns, or present participles. Distinguishing (= gerund) between these, and using them correctly is not always easy – until you understand  these three simple rules.


  1. The gerund is a verb which is used as if it were a noun (Examples 1 & 2 below). Since it is a verb, it can not be qualified by an adjective, nor preceded by an article, but, like other forms of the verb, it can be modified by an adverb and take a complement .
  2. A verbal noun (Examples 3 & 4)  is a noun formed  from a verb; some verbal nouns end in -ing.
    Verbal nouns, like other nouns,  can take a determiner, and be qualified by adjectives.  
  3. A participle is an adjective or part of a participial phrase qualifying a noun or a pronoun.  (Examples 5 et 6). The present participle is also used in the progressive aspect of verb tenses (Examples 7 & 8).
See the differences of use that are illustrated by these examples.

Words in -ing: Gerund, noun or present participle (and progressive verb form)
  1.    Seeing is believing.
  2.    Living cheaply in New York is quite possible.
  3.   The book was easy reading !
  4.    He managed to make a good living.
  5.    Smiling, the lady told them they'd won the big prize.
  6.    I heard them arguing last night.
  7.   I'm taking my brother to the station tonight
  8.    The man was phoning his friend, when the lights went out.

2. The gerund in English: the verb used as a noun

The gerund in English has the form of the present participle in -ing.
It is the most common form of the verb used as a noun, and can be the subject (examples 1 to 7), or the object of a sentence (8 & 9) , or follow prepositions (10 to 13).
  1.    Seeing is believing.
  2.    Reading that book was very interesting.
  3.    Drinking is essential
  4.    Drinking too much pop can make you fat.
  5.    Taking the bus was rather a good idea.
  6.    Swimming is very good exercise.
  7.    Taking too many aspirins is dangerous.
  8.    I really like sailing .
  9.    This article really needs rewriting.
  10.    He drove two hundred miles without ever stopping.
  11.    I look forward to seeing  you again next week.
  12.    I'm thinking of painting my house.
  13.    I started by carefully turning off the electricity
  14.    Do you mind shutting the window, please ?
  15.    Will you consider taking the job?
  16.    I've really enjoyed meeting you.
As the examples above show, the gerund is a verb used as if it were a noun, but not  in the same way as a noun. In other words, it keeps its verbal qualities.  Since it is not used like a noun, it cannot be qualified by an adjective; on the contrary, it keeps some of the essential features that distinguish a verb, notably that it can take a direct object (examples 2, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 above) , and/or be qualified by an adverb (examples 4 ,5 , 12 & 13).
    When gerunds are used as verbal complements (second verbs following a first verb), as in examples  8 and 9 above, they can often be rephrased using an infinitive instead of the gerund.
  However a few verbs require a gerund, not an infinitive (Examples 14 - 16 above). The most common of these are admit, consider, dislike, deny, enjoy, finish, involve, miss, mind,  suggest,
For more details on this, see consecutive verb structures

3. Verbal nouns: nouns that are derived from verbs

There are a large number of ways of creating a noun from a verb: among the most common of these are words that use the root form of the verb and a noun ending such as -ment (as in achievement), -ance (as in disappearance), -ion (as in confirmation) , or -ing (as in The changing of the guard.)  You can see that these -ing forms really are nouns, not verbs, as they can be qualified by adjectives.
  1.    That is a very nice painting
  2.    We're going to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
  3.    After a slow beginning, the show got a bit more lively.
  4.    This story has a rather unexpected ending..
  5.    The commission demanded the breaking up of the company into two separate units.
  6.    The last meeting was not very productive.

4. Areas of possible confusion

Sometimes it is difficult to decide if a word is a gerund or a verbal noun; and in fact, the quality of the -ing word can change according to context.  Look at these examples:
  1. For musicians, practising is essential.
  2. For musicians, practising an instrument is essential
  3. For musicians, regular practising is essential.
  4. For musicians, regular practising an instrument is essential. NO !
  5. For musicians, regularly practising an instrument is essential.
  6. For musicians, the regular practising of an instrument is essential.
In examples 1 and 2 above, practising is clearly a gerund; in example 2 it is followed by a complement, an instrument.  
But in example 3 it is preceeded by an adjective regular; so this time it is being used differently, as a verbal noun. We can verify this if we try to add a complement, as in example 4. It is not possible.
We cannot say "For musicians, regular practising an instrument is essential.".  An -ing word cannot simultaneously be preceeded by an adjective and followed by a direct complement. Other solutions are needed; the ing word must either be used as a gerund, or as a verbal noun, but not both at once.
So while example 4 does not work, there are two solutions.
  Example 5 uses the word practising as a gerund, as in examples 1 and 2; and as it is a gerund, it is modified by an adverb, regularly.
   Finally, example 6 rephrases example 5, but using practising as a verbal noun, not a gerund. We can see that it is a noun, as it is now part of a noun phrase introduced by an article and including an adjective.

5. Present participles

Participles are adjectives; they can either stand alone, before or after their noun, as the situation requires, or else they can be part of an adjectival phrase.
Participles are often used to make a shortened form of a subordinate clause, as in examples 1 and 3 below,  Elliptical phrases may come before the noun or pronoun (e.g. Looking out of the window, I saw ....) or after it (e.g. I saw the tornado coming).  
    However, when the participle phrase is a shortened form of a relative clause, it MUST come after the noun (examples 4 & 7 below).
     Present particples are also used to form the progressive forms of present and past tenses (Examples 8 - 10).
  1. Looking out of the window, I saw the tornado coming
  2. In the course of the coming week, I have three interviews to go to.
  3. I saw the child standing in the middle of the road.
  4. The people living next door are very friendly.
         4b The living next door people are very friendly is impossible.
  5. This is a seriously interesting book.
  6. The winning team will go through to the finals.
  7. The team winning in the first round will go through to the finals.
  8. I was looking out of the window when I saw the tornado.
  9.  At the moment, he's living in Bristol.
  10. The company has been doing very well for the past two years.

Active and passive

Gerunds and participles are most commonly used in the active voice; they can however be easily used in the passive too. Examples 1 - 3 : gerunds, examples 4 & 5 participles.

  1. Being seen is more important than being heard.
  2. He drove two hundred miles without ever being stopped.
  3. They began their holiday by getting hopelessly lost.
  4.  Everyone watched the building getting demolished.
  5.  At the moment they're being sold at half price.

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Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
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Adjective order in English
The possessive
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