Safire on participles and gerunds

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Dec 24 15:43:00 UTC 2007

On Dec 23, 2007, at 9:03 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:

> Safire writes 'When the -ing form of a verb is used as an adjective,
> it is a participle; when used as a noun, it is a gerund.  Thus, "I am
> thinking" (participle form of verb); "a thinking reader" (adjective,
> participle); "thinking is dangerous" (noun, gerund.'

there are several things to be annoyed about in safire's column, but
this morass of terminology (taken, alas, from "traditional" treatments
of english grammar) is certainly one of them.  i've posted about it
several times, most recently in:

and mark liberman, in
quoted CGEL sternly on the matter a year ago:
  >The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a section (p. 82)
with the heading "A distinction between gerund and present participle
can't be sustained". Some highlights:<

   >>Historically the gerund and present participle of traditional
grammar have different sources, but in Modern English the forms are
identical. No verb shows any difference in form ..., not even be.
[Thus] we reject an analysis that has gerund and present participle as
different forms syncretised throughout the class of verbs. We have
therefore just one inflectional form of the verb marked by the -ing
suffix; we label it with the compound term 'gerund-participle' ..., as
there is no reason to give priority to one or the other of the
traditional terms. [...] This grammar also takes the view that even
from the point of view of syntax (as opposed to inflection) the
distinction between gerund and present participle is not viable, and
we will therefore also not talk of gerund and present participle
constructions [...].<<

joel goes on to critique the "traditional" terminology that safire

> But if "the -ing form of a verb used as an adjective" makes it a
> participle, how can "thinking" in "I am thinking" be a participle,
> since in that sentence "thinking" is not an adjective?...

part of the problem in the textbook treatment of these things is that
it fails to distinguish inflectional forms from uses of those forms
(in particular constructions).  english has one inflectional form of
verbs here -- variously labeled "present participle", "PRP", "gerund
participle", "-ing form", "form N".  (the labels are absolutely
without consequence; labels are not definitions, as i keep saying on
Language Log.)

this form has a many uses (in several dozen different constructions),
which can be grouped, roughly and pretheoretically, into three
classes: verbal uses, adjectival uses, and nominal uses.  this
grouping is useful for expository purposes, but it's not clear to me
that any such grouping plays a role in the description of english
syntax.  basically, any verb can appear in any of the constructions
calling for form N (so long as its semantics is compatible with the
semantic requirements of the construction); the semantics of the whole
comes from the construction, rather than from the form-N verb, and the
constructions have different internal syntax.  (among the nominal uses
of form N are in the "gerundive nominal" construction -- "Kim's
handling the objections skillfully" -- and in the "action nominal"
construction -- "Kim's skillful handling of the objections" -- and
these are significantly different in their internal syntax.)

complicating the whole business is the fact that there are a great
many types of words of the form X-ing that are simply nouns, period,
though they are morphologically derived from base lexemes (V-ing
"stuffing" in "chestnut stuffing for the turkey", N-ing "planking",
etc.).  for such words, the syntax of english is oblivious to the
identity of the base lexeme.  (further complication: many of these
lexical nouns are homophones of form-N verbs: "stuffing" as above vs.
"stuffing" in the nominal gerund construction, as in "stuffing the
turkey took three hours".)


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