Thursday, January 5, 2012

Grammar ABCs: G is for Gerund

What is a gerund? Is that one of those little rodent-type creatures who run around inside a wheel? Oh. No, that’s a gerbil.

The word 'gerund' in English comes from the Latin term gerundium, of the same meaning. Gerundium itself comes from the gerundive of the Latin verb gero, gerundus, meaning "to be carried out".

We all know what a gerund is even if we don’t know the name. A gerund is an “ing” form of a verb when it serves as a noun. Although they name things, like other nouns, they normally name activities rather than people or objects.

Shopping is a Sally’s favorite pastime.

Riding a horse is something Rob never thought he’d do.

As you can see, gerunds are often passive writing and are generally frowned upon by English teachers and purist editors. Sally would rather shop than eat is certainly a more active sentence and shows how much passion she has for shopping. Rob never thought he would ride a horse OR Rob never wanted to ride a horse are also more active sentences.

I can’t talk about gerunds without discussing infinitives, which are verbs formed with “to.” To shop is Sally’s passion. To ride is something Rob thought he’d never do.

Again, these sentences are a bit awkward and certainly can be made more active.

Both gerunds and infinitives can be the subject of a sentence, as in the above examples.

Both gerunds and infinitives can be the object of a verb: Sally likes shopping. Rob doesn’t like to ride.

But only gerunds can be the object of a preposition: Sally continually talks about shopping. Rob always avoids riding.

Do you avoid gerunds in your writing or editing, or when do you embrace them?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. I avoid using gerunds at the beginning of sentences, as drummed into my head by one of my English teachers. It's not technically incorrect, but it does prevent unintended dangling participles ("Walking through the forest, the flowers were in full bloom." for example).

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. You guys! I vaguely remember my sixth grade teacher saying something about gerunds ... but, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you what it was ... until today. Now that I know what they are ... avoiding them will be what I do.

  3. I love gerunds, gerundives, present participles, adjectives, adverbs, nouns, noun phrases, verbs, passive voice, ... Well, you get the idea. I reject the whole contemporary party line that deprecates particular parts of speech or demonizes certain legitimate constructions. What made writers like Nabokov and Azrieli abandon their native tongues to write in English was its richness and expressiveness. Not only does English have twice the vocabulary of its nearest competitor, but it has more ways to express ideas. Using gerunds in your writing is not inherently wrong. What is wrong is not availing oneself of the diversity and depth possible in the language. If page after page of your manuscript is peppered with 'ing', that is a problem. If you start some sentences with a gerund as subject to create contrast, enhance the flow, define a rhythm, or build an image, that is being a writer.

    --Larry Constantine (auther of The Rosen Singularity)

  4. I have to agree with Larry on this one. The rich layers of the English language cannot be expressed as an art when we limit our pallet to primary colors because our canvas will lack the pastels, shading, tints, and subtle blends that bring life and brilliance and variety to our stories. Great writing is an art form. Sadly, the true artists are few. Being able to string words together to make a complete sentence doesn't qualify anybody as a great writer — or even a good one.

    Words are the tools of our trade. We need a full chest of them, not just a hammer, pliers, and screwdriver. Learning to use the language correctly (no dangling participles, etc.) in all its intricacies and glory can make the difference between an excellent writer and a mediocre storyteller.

    While I have great respect for many teachers, I have occasional reservations about their qualifications. In the late 1980s, I worked as a theme reader for a school district outside a large metropolitan area. My job: read and mark papers for language arts teachers in 5 schools, grades 4-12. One particular middle school assignment required students to mark adjectives in several sentences, and another required them to note the adverbs. In both cases, a huge number of students failed to recognize either. When I returned the "graded" papers, I asked the teachers why they didn't teach the students to diagram sentences. After a moment of stunned silence, one of them said, "They can't understand the concept." "That's odd," I retorted somewhat less than tactfully. "When I went to school, we understood it."

    Why did we understand? The teachers taught it.

    Now, having had my say, I shall retire to the wings with the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, infinitives, gerunds, etc., etc., etc.

  5. My first novel is written in present tense, making 'ing' verbs rather prevalent. Ah well.

  6. Larry and Linda, you are absolutely correct. It is not wrong to use gerunds, need to know the rules (or guidelines, as I prefer to call them) before you can effectively break them. Elle's example is a mistake I see so very often in beginning writers. And using too many "ing" phrases in a row. Everything in moderation!

  7. Great post. I do work hard to avoid passive writing, but this post was a great refresher! Thanks. This is my first time to your blog, and I love it! I'll be back for sure!

  8. While I try not to write passively, I've never paid attention to my use of gerunds, so this was a helpful post. Thank you!

  9. Re some of the comments above: I don't think anyone has suggested that we banish certain parts of speech from our tool chests or our palettes. The point is to understand and appreciate the differences, particularly their subleties, and to understand the effect that they have on our writing. For example, which of the following sentences do you think is the more powerful and dramatic -- The woman was weeping. or, The woman wept.

  10. Did you mean "palette", Linda? ;) I also disagree with Larry about the richness of other languages. I prefer German to English, hands down. It's much more layered and subtle, and I suspect others can argue the same case with other languages over English/American.

  11. Dani, you're right! I looked up palette in the dictionary to make sure I used the right one - then I copied the wrong one. Thanks for catching that error. This retired editor should certainly know better!

  12. Clearly I have a lot to learn.


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