Saturday, November 26, 2011

Exploring gerunds and gerund phrases

This is a rather detailed exploration of various aspects of gerunds (all the ones I can think of), illustrated with exercises. It includes:
  • A look at finite and non-finite verb forms
  • What exactly is a gerund?
  • Gerund phrases and their functions
  • Gerund phrase or participle clause?
  • Why do I say gerund phrase, but participle clause?
  • Verb patterns - gerund or infinitive after verbs?
  • Possessives with gerunds
  • Object complements
It is a companion piece to my post on participles and participle clauses.
Some of it, especially the section on possessives, can get a bit nerdy, not to mention (for me) a bit hairy - I'm on the edge of my comfort zone with some of this stuff. If grammar's not really your thing, skip those bits.
For interest's sake and the sake of completion, I also mention one or two terms you won't usually come across in EFL/ESL materials; there's no real need to learn these.

Click and Drop - Where you see this sign, mouse over for instructions

A look at finite and non-finite verb forms

Finite forms

Look at this definition of finite verb from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:
a finite verb form or clause shows a particular tense, person and number. For example:
  • He walked into the room. - past simple, 3rd person singular
  • You have made a mistake. - present perfect, 2nd person singular
  • We are getting married next year. - present continuous, 2nd person plural

Non-finite verb forms (aka verbals)

Non-finite verb forms are are those forms of the verb that do not have a tense, person, or number. There are three types:
  • Infinitives
  • Gerunds
  • Participles
I've already dealt with participles and participle clauses in another post.

What exactly is a gerund?

Let's look at a couple of definitions:
gerund - a noun in the form of the present participle of a verb (that is, ending in -ing) for example travelling in the sentence I preferred travelling alone.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD)
The gerund, or verbal noun, in English is the present participle of a verb used as a noun.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU)
So two things become clear:
  • the gerund is in the -ing form, the same as the present participle.
  • gerunds are used like nouns

Why can't we just talk about -ing forms?

TEFL books often talk about -ing forms, and some linguists, for example the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), think that we should stop making the distinction between gerund and present participle.
But TEFL books are not entirely consistent on this, and the vast majority of grammar books and websites distinguish between the two, so it's perhaps worth making the effort to understand the difference.

Main types of -ing phrases / clauses

  • Gerund phrases, which function as nouns, as we have seen.
  • Adverbial participle clauses, which function as adverbs, modifying the whole of the main clause.
  • Reduced relative clauses, which function as adjectives, modifying a noun (phrase)
There are some other constructions with -ing clauses which are usually regarded as participle clauses, so I've dealt with them in my post on participles.
There are also some constructions, where the -ing form follows a preposition, adverb or conjunction, which could be seen as a gerund phrase or as a participle clause. I've discussed these on the participle post.

What do you mean 'Gerunds are used like nouns'?

They are used in the same functional positions as nouns, of which the main ones are:
  • Subject
  • Direct object
  • Indirect object
  • Subject complement (aka predicate nominative)
  • Prepositional object
  • Appositive
One or two of these might be new to you. Don't worry, they should become clear in the next section.

Gerund phrases

We can add objects and adverbial phrases to gerunds. Note that it is the whole resulting gerund phrase that then acts as subject etc, just as when we add information to a noun, it is the whole noun phrase which functions as subject etc.

Exercise 1 - Underline all the words that make up the subject, direct object etc. The first one in each group has been done for you.

Subject
1 Cigarettes are bad for you - Noun
2 So-called mild cigarettes are also bad for you - Noun phrase
3 Smoking is bad for you - Gerund
4 Smoking cigarettes on a regular basis is bad for you - Gerund phrase
Direct object
5 She likes music. - Noun (What does she like? - Music.)
6 She likes heavy metal music. - Noun phrase
7 She loves singing. - Gerund
8 She loves singing in a heavy metal band. - Gerund phrase
Indirect object - implies the preposition to. Only used with a few verbs.
9 He gave Sandra a book. - Noun (He gave a book to Sandra)
10 He gave his sister Sandra some CDs - Noun phrase
11 She gives singing her all. - Gerund
12 He gave her wonderful singing top marks. - Gerund phrase
Subject complement - when a noun / gerund (phrase) follows a linking verb such as to be
13 Her greatest love is music - Noun (Her greatest love = music)
14 He became a great opera singer - Noun phrase
15 Her hobby is singing. - Gerund
16 Her hobby is singing in a choir. - Gerund phrase
Prepositional object - when a noun / gerund (phrase) follows a preposition
17 She devotes a lot of her time to music. - Noun (What to? - to music)
18 She has an excellent ear for harmonic nuances. - Noun phrase
19 She has a passion for singing. - Gerund
20 He has a reputation for singing out of tune. - Gerund phrase
Appositive - when a noun / gerund phrase follows immediately after another noun (phrase) and refers back to the same person or thing
21 She loves all music but especially her favourite, jazz. - Noun (What is her favourite? - Jazz)
22 She has a lot of CDs of her favourite music, late baroque. - Noun phrase
23 She spends a lot of time on her hobby, singing. - Gerund
24 Her favourite pastime, singing in a choir, takes up a lot of her time. - Gerund phrase

Which function?

Sailors singing
19th century Royal Navy sailors singing while off duty. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sea shanties

One thing that surprised me when I came to Poland was how popular sea shanties are here. Shanties were originally sung by sailors mainly to help them in their their tiring work, but also as in the picture, to while away any spare time they might have. In Britain you might hear shanties in folk clubs, but here in Poland you can find shanty pubs. Probably the most famous shanty of all is 'Drunken Sailor', and I've linked to a video by the Irish Rovers with subtitles below.

Exercise 2 - Decide which function the gerund phrases in these sentences are filling.

1. His great love is singing sea shanties.
2. He was arrested for singing sea shanties in the middle of the night.
3. He gives singing sea shanties all his spare time.
4. He spends all his spare time on his hobby, singing sea shanties.
5. He loves singing sea shanties.
6. Singing sea shanties makes him really happy.
aSubject
bDirect Object
cIndirect Object
dPrepositional object
eSubject complement
fAppositive

Gerund phrase or participle clause?

As we have seen, an -ing form can be a gerund or a participle. In the next exercise there is one sentence for each function of the gerund we've looked at above, and five adverbial participle clauses.

Exercise 3 - Decide whether the -ing forms in these sentences are part of a gerund phrase (GP) or an adverbial participle clause (PC)

GPPC
1.One of Patricia's favourite occupations is singing in the bath.
2.Singing happily, Patricia got into the bath.
3.Her favourite occupation, singing in the bath, can be a bit annoying at times.
4.But this time he didn't give her singing in the bath a second thought.
5.But having started quite quietly, she started to sing more loudly.
6.She is very good at singing loudly in the bath!
7.Singing so loudly, she didn't hear the doorbell at first.
8.Even though he could make out her singing from outside the flat.
9.Her singing so loudly was beginning to get on his nerves.
10.She stopped for a moment, finally hearing the doorbell.
11.Putting on a dressing gown, she went to open the door.

Bonus exercise - Look at the sentences you've marked as participle clauses. Enter the number of each sentence having the following functions:

1.Two consecutive actions (one after the other)
2.Two simultaneous actions (at the same time)
3.It is important that one thing happens before another
4.The participle clause is the result of something
5.The participle clause is the cause of something

Why do I say gerund phrase, but participle clause?

Look at these definitions from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
phrase - a group of words without a finite verb, especially one that forms part of a sentence. ‘the green car’ and ‘on Friday morning’ are phrases.
clause - a group of words that includes a subject and a verb, and forms a sentence or part of a sentence. In the sentence ‘They often go to Italy because they love the food’, ‘They often go to Italy’ is the main clause and ‘because they love the food’ is a subordinate clause.

Participle clauses

Technically, participle clauses are not really clauses, because they don't have a finite verb. For this reason, some grammarians refer to them as participle phrases. But probably because they function in the same way as clauses, often separated from the main clause by a comma, they are usually referred to as clauses.
They can also be converted into full clauses with a finite verb, as in these pairs of sentences:
  • Walking home one evening, he saw a fox.
  • While he was walking home one evening, he saw a fox.
  • Having left his mobile phone at home, he didn't get her message.
  • Because he had left his mobile phone at home, he didn't get her message.

Reduced relative clauses

These are of course reduced versions of full clauses with finite verbs.
  • Do you know the man standing by the bus stop?
  • Do you know the man who is standing by the bus stop?
  • The clothes lying round the room made it look very untidy.
  • The clothes which were lying round the room made it look very untidy.

Gerund phrases

But gerund phrases always function as nouns and cannot be turned into clauses with finite verbs, therefore they are almost always referred to as gerund phrases. (I think! Always is a dangerous word in English.)

Gerunds after go

We often use -ing forms after the verb go for activities and sports. These are generally understood to be gerunds:
Go -bowling, climbing, dancing, fishing, hunting, jogging, riding, sailing, shooting, shopping, skateboarding, skating, skiing, surfing, swimming, walking, wind-surfing etc

Verb patterns - gerund or infinitive?

Where you are most likely to hear gerunds mentioned in EFL is when talking about verb patterns when a verb follows another verb.
As you know, a finite verb can often be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive (usually with to, but sometimes without). This can give students some problems.
  • He really likes swimming in the sea.
  • I'd love to come and visit you sometime.
Sometimes direct objects are also involved.
  • She doesn't like me smoking in the house.
  • She wants me to finish the report today.
The third category, the infinitive without to, is especially used with causative verbs and with some verbs of perception
  • He made me do it
  • I saw him run away.
I've already written a separate post on causative verbs, see links below.
This whole area deserves a post to itself, so I'll just include a couple of exercises here dealing with gerunds and to infinitives.
Although there are no hard and fast rules, the use of the gerund tends to be more passive, often looking backwards, whereas the use of the infinitive is more active, looking forwards. To see this principle in action we'll start with an exercise where the same verbs can be used with either the gerund or the infinitive, with a change of meaning.

Verbs that can be used with both the gerund and the to infinitive, but with a change of meaning.

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with the gerund or to infinitive of the verbs in the box. Each verb is used once (there is one idiom).

buy   ·   have   ·   ask   ·   look   ·   be   ·   do   ·   become   ·   ring   ·   think   ·   lock   ·   send   ·   open   ·   get   ·   work
1.Don't forget me a postcard, will you?
2.Have you tried the concert hall to see if they've got any tickets?
3.He always dreads his bank statement.
4.We tried seats for the concert, but they were all sold out.
5.Did you remember milk?
6.He got a double first at Oxford and went on a brilliant historian.
7.I'm broke, but I can't bear him for any more money.
8.I really can't bear as broke as this.
9.We were quite tired, so we stopped a rest.
10.Everyone just went on what they were doing.
11.I don't remember the door this morning.
12.They stopped so that they could watch the Grand National on TV.
13.I dread what might have happened if the police hadn't arrived.
14.I'll never forget out over Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Verbs that are only used with one form, the gerund or the to infinitive.

Exercise 5 - Complete the sentences with the gerund or to infinitive of the verbs in the box. Each verb is used once.

finish   ·   listen   ·   be   ·   run   ·   have   ·   let   ·   visit   ·   help
1.I fancy pasta for supper. How about you?
2.They promised the work by Friday, at the latest.
3.He's agreed us use his car for the weekend.
4.She really enjoys far flung places.
5.Can you imagine your own business?
6.Don't you just adore to music in the bath?
7.I've volunteered out at a charity do next week.
8.He has asked me his best man.

Other patterns - gerund or infinitive?

There are also some other times when you need to know whether to use the gerund or the to infinitive.

Exercise 6 - Complete the sentences with the gerund or to infinitive of the verbs in the box. Each verb is used once.

do   ·   leave   ·   eat   ·   meet   ·   have   ·   book   ·   go   ·   read   ·   watch   ·   pay   ·   call   ·   drive
1.It is said that snacks between meals isn't very healthy.
2.Since school he has had several jobs.
3.Would you prefer back later?
4.When I lost my wallet I didn't know what .
5.It's definitely worth your holiday in advance.
6.It's always important the instructions very carefully.
7.I'm really fed up with so much extra work to do.
8.People think that too much TV is bad for you.
9.I'm really looking forward to my future in-laws.
10.I'd love and see that sculpture exhibition.
11.Can you really afford for all this?
12.They accused me of through a red light.

Something needs doing - gerunds used with a passive meaning.

With a very few verbs, we can use a gerund in a passive sense. Here the gerund replaces a passive infinitive. The verb most commonly used in this way is need.
  • The car needs servicing soon. = to be serviced.
  • That shirt needs ironing. = to be ironed.
  • The water heater needs seeing to. = to be seen to.
  • In case you need reminding, tomorrow's Judy's birthday = to be reminded.
Other verbs sometimes used like this are: require, deserve, and in informal British English: want.
  • This form requires filling in. = to be filled in
  • One thing deserves mentioning here, ... = to be mentioned
  • The dishes want washing. = to be washed
  • That bloke wants locking up. = to be locked up (eg: in prison)
Note - want - This is used in informal British English with the meaning of need or deserve. In the second example 'that bloke' certainly doesn't want to be sent to prison in the normal sense of want, but the speaker thinks he needs and/or deserves to be.
Sometimes a gerund is used instead of a past participle after an object:
  • My car always needs something doing to it. (or done).
  • He wants his head examining. (or examined).

Possessives with gerunds - 1. The dispute

You can go straight to 'Possessive with gerund - 2. Current practice' below, if you are not really interested in the historical dispute.
In the previous section I used the example sentence:
  • She doesn't like me smoking in the house
This includes what the influential writer on usage Henry W Fowler called a 'fused participle'. This happens when a noun or pronoun comes before the gerund and they together form the subject, object etc (the examples are all mine, not Fowler's):
  • Stephen leaving like that really upset her. - proper noun
  • There's the small matter of our car being damaged. - common noun
  • She quite understood him wanting to leave. - personal pronoun
  • She was embarrassed at everyone laughing at her. - impersonal pronoun
Fowler thought that these should either be turned into true participle clauses
  • Leaving like that, Stephen really upset her.
Or that the noun or pronoun should be in the possessive, as it would be if it was followed by a noun instead of a gerund (which, remember acts like a noun).
  • Stephen's behaviour really upset her. - noun + noun
  • Stephen's leaving like that really upset her. - noun + gerund phrase
And the other three:
  • There's the small matter of our car's being damaged.
  • She quite understood his wanting to leave.
  • She was embarrassed at everyone's laughing at her.
I have to admit that Fowler's idea about the possessive has a certain logic to it, but it goes against hundreds of years of practice and led to a classic language battle between Fowler and linguist Otto Jespersen at the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact this question had already been arousing discussion since the middle of the 18th century. Jespersen strongly defended the existing (non-possessive practice), producing lots of examples from literature to back his case.
Fowler's idea was taken up by some commentators, but refuted by others, leaving yet another battlefield for the prescriptivists and descriptivists to fight over.
  • Those with prescriptivist leanings tend to say you must use the possessive
  • Those with descriptivist leanings tend to say you usually have a choice
But see 'Possessive with gerund - 2. Current practice' below, for a set of detailed recommendations.
If you're not sure about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism in grammar, there's a good introduction on Wikipedia - scroll down to 'Prescription and description'
Tradional grammarians and websites giving advice to writers tend to take the prescriptivist approach, whereas linguists and most EFL/ESL websites tend to take a descriptivist approach to most language questions.

Spot the difference - time for a bit of really nerdy grammar

Sometimes different types of phrase / clause can look very similar. In the next exercise, there is one example of:
  • a gerund phrase following a noun / pronoun, as we have seen above
  • a participle clause following a noun / pronoun, acting as an object complement.
  • a reduced relative clause
Note - gerund phrase - this, remember, functions as a noun. Try turning any object noun or pronoun before the gerund itself into a possessive. If that sounds OK, it's probably a gerund.
Note - object complement - this is used after certain verbs, such as verbs of perception. It can look a bit like a reduced relative clause, but the object really includes both the person and the action together:
Note - reduced realtive clause - the object is really the noun / pronoun. The -ing form either identifies the object or gives us extra information. Try introducing who/which is/are etc:

Exercise 7a - Decide whether the following sentences include a gerund phrase (GP), an object complement (OC) or a reduced relative clause (RR). There is one of each. After you've checked, read my explanation.

GPOCRR
1.Do you see that man talking to Mike? That's my new boyfriend.
2.She saw her new boyfriend talking to Mike, her ex.
3.She wasn't sure she liked him talking to her ex.

Exercise 7b - Now do the same with these sentences. There is one gerund phrase, one object complement and one reduced relative clause in each set of three sentences.

GPOCRR
1.My aunt doesn't like me smoking at the dining table.
2.My aunt is speaking to the man smoking at the table.
3.My aunt saw me smoking at the dining table.
 
4.He was really impressed with the young woman leading the race.
5.He was really impressed with the young woman's leading the race.
6.He noticed a young woman giving water to the runners.
 
7.Sally found him reading her diary.
8.Sally doesn't like him reading her diary.
9.Sally is the one over there reading her diary
 
10.Peter hates me talking about him.
11.Peter heard me talking about him.
12.Peter hates talking to that man wearing the red tie.

A bit more on object complements

Object complements can modify objects after certain verbs and are necessary to complete the sentence. They are usually nouns or adjectives.
  • They called their child Patricia.
  • She thought herself extremely lucky.
After verbs of perception and a few other verbs such as find, we can use a participle clause as an object complement. Here it is working like an adjective to modify the object. It may not always seem grammatically necessary, but it is needed for the meaning of the sentence.
Look at that sentence from Exercise 7a again:
She saw her new boyfriend talking to Mike, her ex.
What did she see? - She saw her boyfriend, so the object is her boyfriend. But just as important is the fact that he is talking to her ex. So that is complementing (completing the information about) the object, her boyfriend. Another way we could put it is:
She saw her new boyfriend (and saw) that he was talking to Mike, her ex.
There are a couple of exercises related to this on my post on participles and particple clauses, linked to below.

Don't confuse subject complement and object complement

Remember the subject complement is a noun (phrase) or adjective that comes after a linking verb like be, become etc, and refers back to the subject.
  • He was a lawyer.
  • He became quite rich.
  • He seems quite a rich lawyer.

Avoiding ambiguity

Gerund phrase or object complement?

Have another look at this sentence 8 from Exercise 3
  • Even though I could make out her singing from outside the flat.
I had originally written, with the same intended meaning:
  • Even though I could hear her singing from outside the flat.
But I later realised that it could be ambiguous, having two possible meanings:
  • It was her singing that I could hear (and I was outside the flat) - Gerund phrase
  • I could hear her and that she was singing (and she was outside the flat) - Participle complementing the object - her
I think this only happens with her, where the object form and the possessive form is the same. It shows, perhaps, why some people think the distinction berween gerund and participle doesn't always make a great deal of sense. In this case it's best to change the sentence a bit.

Gerund phrase or reduced relative clause?

Now look at this sentence:
  • He was really impressed with the young woman leading the race.
The underlined part could be a gerund or a reduced relative clause. It is not clear whether he is impressed with the young woman herself, or the fact that she's leading the race. By adding a possessive 's, we make clear leading the race is a gerund, and that that is what we are interested in.
  • He was really impressed with the young woman's leading the race.
On the other hand, if it's really the young woman he was impressed with, perhaps we would be better with the full relative clause.
  • He was really impressed with the young woman who was leading the race.

Possessive with gerund - 2. Current practice

There's quite a long section on this in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), and they conclude:
Let's recapitulate: This construction, both with and without the possessive, has been used in writing for about 300 years. Both forms have been used by standard authors. Both forms have been called incorrect, but neither are.
The New Fowler's (1996), edited by R.W. Birchfield, seems to me to have a reasonable approach to this, somewhere between the two extremes (my examples):
  • With a proper name - possessive normally used
    David's turning up at her wedding like that was a bit of a surprise
  • With things and plurals - not normally used
    What is the reason for my foot swelling, I wonder.
    Because of the shops closing early, we couldn't but any last minute Christmas presents.
  • With personal pronouns - either way possible, depending on context and register. But see note below.
    Sarah didn't approve of me/my swearing.
    My/Me swearing like that really annoyed Sarah.
  • With indefinite pronouns - non-possessive more common.
    She didn't approve of anyone telling her what to do

A note about personal pronouns

There seems to be a difference depending on whether personal pronouns are in subject or object position. When it is in object position:
Sarah didn't approve of me swearing.
Here, probably because we are expecting an object form anyway, me sounds totally natural and is fine, unless you want to be very formal (or pedantic!), in which case use my
But when the personal pronoun is in subject position, things are a bit different:
Me swearing like that really annoyed Sarah.
We don't really expect an object form here, and the use of me could sound perhaps a little too informal in certain circumstances. Here Birchfield recommends using my.
There is, by the way, a subtle change in stress here. If we use me, it would need to be equally stressed with swearing, with perhaps the tiniest of pauses between the two words:
  • My swearing like that really annoyed Sarah.
  • Me swearing like that really annoyed Sarah.
And MDWEU suggests that there might be a small difference in nuance here. If I say 'me swearing', it is more likely Sarah is anoyed because it is specifically me doing the swearing, whereas if I say 'my swearing', Sarah probably just does't like swearing in general.
And finally, from MWDEU again:
We suspect that this one of those idiomatic usages that seldom give the native speaker trouble. It will trouble learners of English much more. We can only advise learners that the possessive will almost always be safe for pronouns, and will probably work most of the time with nouns. But in doubtful cases, you may need to consult a native speaker.
You can read the whole section at Google Books (p753).

Getting even nerdier

As an aside, I've seen this text on a couple of websites discussing grammar (I've changed one rather ambiguous word). Who copied who, I don't know.
Do we say "I can't stand him singing in the shower," or do we say "I can't stand his singing in the shower"? Well, you have to decide what you can't stand: is it him, the fact that he is singing in the shower, or is it the singing that is being done by him that you can't stand? Chances are, it's the latter, it's the singing that belongs to him that bugs you. So we would say, "I can't stand his singing in the shower."
This approach appears to have a certain logic, but in fact it's nonsense. "I can't stand him singing in the shower," and "I can't stand his singing in the shower" both mean exactly the same (unless we stress him); the only difference is in formality. For most of us the first version is perfectly OK, especially in spoken English, and it is endorsed by both MWDEU and New Fowler's. For a prominent linguist's (fairly technical) take on this, see the Language Log link below.
And the next part is no better:
On the other hand, do we say "I noticed your standing in the alley last night"? Probably not, because it's not the action that we noticed; it's the person. So we'd say and write, instead, "I noticed you standing in the alley last night." Usually, however, when a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund, that noun or pronoun takes a possessive form. This is especially true of formal, academic writing.
In my opinion, it's simply not true that we would probably not say "I noticed your standing in the alley last night". We would never say it.
This is because this is a verb of perception (try substituting saw for noticed) followed by by an object compliment clause. It's both the person and their action that we noticed, not simply one or the other. There is no gerund involved here.
Perhaps another reason for ditching the gerund/participle division?

Related posts on this blog

Link - Gerunds

Links - Other

Links - possessives with gerunds

  • Grammartips.Homestead.com - Possessives precede gerunds - the prescriptivist approach
  • Language Log - Possessive with gerund: Tragic loss or good riddance? - the descriptive approach (quite technical, but with a direct link to Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.)
  • Pain in the English - forum type discussion

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