Adjective, Participle, or Gerund?
Posted by Neal on January 18, 2013
In my last post, I talked about present participles that aren’t adjectives, in examples such as are frightening the cats or is running for his life. In this post, I’m going to follow the practice of CGEL and refer to these simply as present participles. In my last post, I also talked about present participles that are adjectives, such as frightening (without a direct object), exciting, daring, scathing, etc. Following CGEL, I am not going to call these participles anymore. I will refer to them simply as adjectives, and if I need to distinguish between these adjectives and adjectives that were not derived from verbs by adding -ing, I will speak of participial adjectives.
All the examples in my last post, whether they involved participles or adjectives, used these words in a predicative position — that is, following a linking verb. The diagnostic I used to separate the adjectives from the participles was the adverb very. Unlike most adverbs, very can modify only adjectives or other adverbs, so if you know that X is either an adjective or a verb, and very X is grammatical, then X must be an adjective. Using the very test, we know that frightening is an adjective in The kids are (very) frightening, as well as in The kids are (very) frightening to the cats. We also saw that very didn’t work in *The kids are very frightening the cats (unless you’re Freddy Mercury or Junie B. Jones). This could mean that frightening is not an adjective in this sentence, or that it is an adjective but for whatever reason can’t be modified by very. Given the results of some other diagnostics that I won’t go into right now, it’s more sensible to conclude that frightening is not an adjective, but a participle.
Now I want to use the very test on adjectives and participles in an attributive position — right next to a noun, as in the frightening kids. Here, too, frightening passes the very test, indicating that it is well and truly an adjective:
the very frightening kids
But some verbs, such as playing, fail the very test in that same position:
*the very playing kids
But wait! Both frightening and playing are modifying kids in these examples; doesn’t that mean they’re both adjectives? Not according to the very test, it doesn’t. It took me a while to get my head around this. I reminded myself: You can modify a noun with things other than an adjective phrase. You can modify it with a prepositional phrase: the kids in the pool. You can modify it with another noun: the school kids. And you can also modify it with a verb, in the form of a participle.
At this point, you might consider the possibility that playing actually is still an adjective, and that it fails the very test for some other reason. However, look what you can do with playing but can’t do with frightening: You can modify it with a just-for-verbs adverb, such as carefully:
*the carefully frightening kids
the carefully playing kids
Playing is definitely acting more like a verb than an adjective here.
Are there -ing verb-derived words that modify nouns and fail both the very and the carefully tests? Sure! Here’s one:
my jogging shorts
*my very jogging shorts
*my carefully jogging shorts [unless you have shorts than like to jog]
And with that, we’ve moved from participial adjectives to participles to gerunds. Here’s a summary of our progression, in convenient flowchart form. (In the chart, “AD-VERB” is my way of indicating an adverb that modifies only verbs, such as carefully.)