Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Is it a verb? Is it a noun? An introduction to the gerund

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Some words are ugly and some grammatical concepts are very tricky indeed. And sometimes ugly combines with tricky. But I know you like a challenge.

Exhibit A: the gerund.

Don’t go — the butler’s serving drinks afterwards.

This explanation involves verbs and nouns.

Because — drum roll — a gerund is a verb that takes it upon itself to be noun. But only when it feels like it, of course.

Government health warning: This is quite a difficult area and grammarians disagree over its finer details. The following is just a brief insight but may explain some of those ‘strange’ constructions you sometimes see. Also, a little basic knowledge of the gerund can come in handy when writing or speaking formally.

Deep breath.

Verbs that can become nouns end in ‘ing’, for example, ‘leaving’ as in the following:

Would you mind me leaving?

Would you mind my leaving?

But which version, strictly speaking, is correct? Well, the second version is correct because ‘leaving’ is being used as a noun, making it a gerund. A good test is to replace the word you are not sure about with another similar word that is definitely a noun (and not one of those pesky words that can be both a verb and a noun):

Would you mind me absence?

Would you mind my absence?

The first example is obviously wrong.

And here’s a slightly trickier example of the gerund in action:

I like that man wearing aftershave.

I like that man’s wearing aftershave.

The first sentence means that I like the man (who happens to be wearing aftershave).

The second means that I like the fact that he’s wearing aftershave.

You can see that the verb ‘wearing’ has become a noun in the second sentence because it is preceded by a possessive apostrophe.

This doesn’t cover everything about gerunds, but it’s a good start. Next time someone mentions it you can look intelligent and murmur ‘verb acting as a noun’, and that’ll be you off the hook.

Here’s some more info on gerunds.

Picture: ajschwegler


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