As a grammar enthusiast, there’s nothing I like more than when English has clear, consistent rules. Confounding that, though, are my favorite parts of English: the gerund – verbs that decided to break all the rules and act as nouns.
The gerund derives from Latin, where it is used adjectivally. Most of the Romance languages (Italian, French, Portuguese) follow this format and use their version of the gerund as either an adverbial or adjectival participle. Non-finite Italian verb forms are a little beyond the scope of this column, but I wanted to note the distinction between English and other languages because we have both gerunds and adverbial/adjectival participles that are used differently, despite often taking the same form.
That was a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo. Now, what is a gerund? An English gerund is a verb that ends in “- ing” (i.e. the present participle) that acts as a noun. Its purpose is to create a noun form for the action of a verb.
Examples before we continue: “I hate running. Running is awful. Running a marathon is torture.”
There we have three sentences that contain both gerunds and universal truths. Since this column isn’t about my aversion to running, we’ll focus on the former.
In the first sentence, the gerund “running” acts as the object of the verb “hate.” In the second sentence, the gerund “running” is the subject of the sentence. The third sentence is more interesting.
In the sentence, “Running a marathon is torture,” the gerund clause “running a marathon” acts as the subject of the sentence. Within the clause, though, the gerund “running” maintains verbal qualities – that is, it takes an object. In this case, the object is “a marathon.” Pretty neat stuff.
A warning to close out the column: Not all verbal nouns ending in “- ing” are gerunds. Consider the following sentences: “I like painting. I like that painting.” In the first sentence, “painting” refers to the action of the infinitive “to paint,” and is thus a gerund. In the second sentence, “painting” refers to the product of the infinitive “to paint,” and is thus a non-gerund.
Gerunds always act as nouns (and thus aren’t participles) and always refer to the action of a verb (not to the product of a verb). And running is always terrible.