Safire on participles and gerunds

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Mon Dec 24 16:43:51 UTC 2007

Thanks, Arnold.  I am fortunately constrained in submitting to the
OED to decide only between verb, adjective, and noun.

I do have one quibble, though.  What about the adjectival use, in
"The stuffing ingredients are bread crumbs [etc.]"?  Or should I wait
'til next November to raise this issue?


At 12/24/2007 10:43 AM, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
>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".)
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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