What is a gerund?
In English, -ing is one of the most common verb endings. There are several different reasons why verbs might end in -ing, and this can be a point of confusion for students. Verb forms are a complex feature of English generally, so it pays to know the difference between -ing forms in their different functions.
The three main -ing forms which exist in English are: Gerunds, present participles and participle adjectives. We can tall the difference between these if we think about their function, meaning and syntax (the order of words or relationship with other words around them). Identifying a gerund is easy if you follow a simple substitution test.
A gerund is a verb with an -ing ending which functions as the subject or object of a sentence. Gerunds look like verbs, but behave more like nouns. We can test whether an -ing form is a gerund by substituting not for a noun with similar meaning, and if it fits grammatically, the the -ing form must have been playing the role of a noun in the sentence, so must be a gerund.
For example, in the sentence:
Hanging lanterns outside restaurants is traditional in China.
The subject of the sentence comes from the verb phrase ‘to hang lanterns outside restaurants’, with the verb ‘hang’ used in its -ing form: hanging. We can substitute the action for the single noun ‘lanterns’:
Lanterns are traditional in China.
And we keep the same sentence structure, though this time the subject is a noun. The grammar is the same, so this substitution test shows us that the -ing form in the first sentence must be a gerund.
Gerunds can also be used in the object position, as in:
I don’t like going to the gym.
Again, the verb phrase ‘going to the gym’ acts as the object of the sentence, and can be substituted for a single noun:
I don’t like exercise.
So, a gerund is a verb +ing that acts as a subject or object in a sentence. If the -ing form can’t be comfortably substituted for a noun, then it is likely to be another -ing form, such as a present participle.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
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