What Are Gerunds?

A gerund is a verb form that functions as a noun. A gerund is created by adding the suffix "-ing" to the base form of a verb. Like all nouns, gerunds can be used as subjects, objects of verbs, objects of prepositions, or complements. For example:
  • Swimming is permitted in the lake. (subject of "is")
  • I hate running. (object of the verb "hate")
  • I was accepted after learning some Italian. (object of the preposition "after")
  • Her passion is dancing. (complement of the subject "her passion")

Table of Contents

  • Properties of a Gerund
  • Examples of Gerunds
  • More Examples of Gerunds
  • Gerund Phrases
  • Gerund or Participle?
  • Why Gerunds Are Important
  • Test Time!
gerund definition

Properties of a Gerund

Unlike a normal noun, a gerund maintains some verb-like properties. For example, like a verb, a gerund can take a direct object and be modified with an adverb.
  • drinking a flagon
  • (The gerund drinking has a direct object, a flagon.)
  • driving erratically
  • (The gerund driving is modified with an adverb, erratically.)
  • regularly visiting the hospital
  • (The gerund visiting is modified with an adverb, regularly, and has a direct object, the hospital. )

Examples of Gerunds

Like all nouns, a gerund can function in one of four ways. Here is an example of each way using the gerund "visiting":

(1) The Subject of a Verb.

For example:
  • Visiting New York is always an experience.
  • ("Visiting" is the subject of the verb "is.")
Read more about subjects.

(2) The Object of a Verb.

For example:
  • I love visiting New York.
  • ("Visiting" is the direct object of the verb "love.")
Read more about objects.

(3) The Object of a Preposition.

For example:
  • I surprised them by visiting New York.
  • ("Visiting" is the object of the preposition "by.")
Read more about objects of prepositions.

A Subject Complement.

For example:
  • My highlight was visiting New York.
  • ("Visiting" is a subject complement. It completes the linking verb "was" and renames the subject, making it a subject complement.)
Read more about subject complements.
gerunds use

More Examples of Gerunds

Here are some more examples of gerunds functioning as subjects, objects, objects of prepositions, or subject complements.
  • Acting is fun.
  • (The gerund is the subject of the sentence.)
  • Playing football is fun.
  • (The gerund is the subject of the sentence. The word football is the gerund complement of the gerund playing.)
  • Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing. (Sir Ralph Richardson, 1902-1983)
  • (Acting is a gerund as a subject. The gerunds keeping and coughing are objects of prepositions. The phrase a large group of people is the gerund complement of keeping.)
  • Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need. (Kahlil Gibran, 1883-1931)
  • (Two gerunds, both subject complements)
  • I love acting. It is so much more real than life. (Playwright Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900)
  • (A gerund as the direct object of the verb love)
  • You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans. (Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004)
  • (A gerund as the object of a preposition)
  • I like to play blackjack. I'm not addicted to gambling, I'm addicted to sitting in a semi-circle. (Mitch Hedberg, 1968-2005)
  • (Two gerunds, both objects of prepositions)

Gerund Phrases

A gerund will often be at the head a gerund phrase. A gerund phrase (underlined) consists of a gerund, its objects, and all modifiers.
  • Eating blackberries quickly will make you ill.
  • (Here, the gerund phrase consists of the gerund eating, the direct object blackberries, and the adverb quickly.)
  • I like to play blackjack. I'm not addicted to gambling. I'm addicted to sitting in a semicircle. (Comedian Mitch Hedberg)
  • (Here, the first gerund (gambling) does not head a gerund phrase, but the second (sitting) does. The phrase in a semicircle is an adverb (called an adverbial phrase) that modifies the gerund sitting.)
That's all pretty tidy. Let's start building in some complications.
  • Eating blackberries without washing them will make you ill.
  • (This is similar to the example above, but now our adverb is without washing them. It's an adverbial phrase within our gerund phrase that includes its own gerund phrase, washing them.)
  • Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. (Biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi) (Here, the direct objects of the gerunds seeing and thinking are what everybody has seen and what nobody has thought. These direct objects are both noun clauses. This example has been added to highlight that nouns (just like adverbs and adjectives) can be phrases or clauses too (not just single words), and this point is important for unpicking the components (i.e., the objects and modifiers) within a gerund phrase.)
Read more about gerund phrases.

Gerund or Participle?

Even though all gerunds end with the suffix -ing, not every word which ends -ing is a gerund. The other common type of word which ends -ing is the present participle. Like gerunds, present participles are also formed from verbs (making them verbals), but they are not used as nouns. They are used as adjectives or when forming verbs in a progressive tense. For example:
  • Running the tap will clear the air pocket.
  • (This is a gerund.)
  • Can you fix the running tap?
  • (This is a present participle as an adjective.)
  • The tap was running for an hour.
  • (This is a present participle used to form the past progressive tense.)

Why Gerunds Are Important

Using gerunds and gerund phrases comes easily to native English speakers, and, as a rule, gerunds do not cause many writing issues. In fact, gerunds come so easily to native speakers, you can use them to create natural, flowing sentences.

One of the biggest failings with business writing is using too many nouns (normal nouns, I mean, not gerunds). Look at this example:
  • We will discuss the reprimand of John for being in violation of the regulations.
  • (The writer has overused nouns (shown in bold), making the sentence sound stilted.)
Writers often opt for nouns (and the prepositions needed to make those nouns work) to make their writing sound more corporate. Usually, that's bad judgment by the writer because overusing nouns often makes your text harder to read as well as jolty and stale. Your readers will appreciate cleaner, smoother sentences.

Producing cleaner, smoother sentences is best achieved with a bias for verbs in your word choice, but gerunds (given they're pretty verb-like themselves) can also help.
  • We will discuss reprimanding John for violating the regulations.
  • (This 9-word version featuring two gerunds is far smoother than the 14-word version above. As it is easier to read and shorter, it saves time, braincells, and ink.)

Key Point

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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