Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Coordinated Gerunds with Shared Direct Objects

Posted by Neal on June 28, 2010

In my last post, I wondered why this sentence had a plural verb instead of a singular:

…collecting and displaying pristine playthings wreak havoc on their fragile psyches.

At the end of the post, I was wondering if you got singular agreement as a rule when coordinated gerunds (e.g. collecting and displaying) shared a direct object (here, pristine playthings). Clearly it doesn’t for Nick Chordas (the writer of that sentence), or maybe for whoever edited the copy, but in my grammar, that verb needs to be singular. The alternative hypothesis is that coordinated gerunds that share a direct object (or an adverb or what have you) work the same as coordinated gerund phrases that don’t share direct objects. Specifically, you get a singular or a plural verb depending only on context: Is the speaker considering the activities to be a single, complex activity, or separate activities?

In a comment on the last post, Dominik Lukeš brought up these examples:

Running and swimming *is/are great cardiovascular activities.
Running and swimming really does/do improve your cardiovascular fitness.

In the first example, running and swimming are clearly considered individually (as given away by the plural predicate nominative cardiovascular activities), and the verb must be plural. In the second example, either singular or plural is grammatical, though with different meanings. With the singular, it might be the case that running or swimming alone would not improve your cardiovascular fitness; the claim is that doing both is what brings the benefit.

His opinion about coordinated gerunds with a shared direct object is that the syntax will demand singular agreement; semantics doesn’t come into play. To get some additional data on the matter, I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and searched for other examples. It’s easy to look for two gerunds connected by and: You just ask for “[vvg] and [vvg]”. But to find those with a shared direct object is trickier. If the direct object is a pronoun, the search “[vvg] and [vvg] [p*]” will bring them in. The search “[vvg] and [vvg] [nn*]” will bring in those that are followed by a noun, such as sending and receiving e-mail, but not those that are followed by a multi-word noun phrase, such as finding and destroying every Justin Bieber poster. The search “[vvg] and [vvg] the” will bring in a few more: Those followed by NPs starting with the, such as designing and building the solar dream houses.

In addition to not pulling in some of the relevant examples that might be in the corpus, these searches will bring in a lot of trash. First of all, the search program can’t tell whether the coordinated gerunds are the subject of a sentence (what we’re looking for), or an object of a verb or a preposition. Nor can it tell whether a direct object following two gerunds belongs to both of them, or just the last one (as in kissing and holding hands). Furthermore, the part-of-speech tags in this corpus don’t distinguish between gerunds and present participles, so some irrelevant hits like rising and falling curves get pulled in.

Even so, these searches did bring in a couple of dozen good examples. First, those that took a singular verb:

Coordinated gerunds, shared direct object, singular verb

  1. Health experts say that losing and regaining weight rapidly creates more than psychological problems.
  2. But buying and selling stocks is never an easy proposition for fund managers.
  3. Not surprisingly 98 percent of users say that sending and receiving e-mail is their top activity online
  4. Sending and receiving e-mail is by far the most common activity on the Internet,
  5. Sending and receiving e-mail is an easy habit to form because it’s so effortless.
  6. Making and keeping friends for boys this age is the same as practicing how to be a young man.
  7. I guess aiding and abetting the GOP wish for “failure” is more important than helping one’s citizens who are unemployed.
  8. For instance, opening and closing the lips with the tongue flattened allows a baby to say ” baba.
  9. Entering and leaving the house is a particularly high-risk activity,
  10. so raising and lowering the basket is fast and easy — even for young kids.
  11. Comparing and contrasting the various offender types is illuminating.
  12. For the 20 American and European colleges that made the finals, designing and building the solar dream houses was only half the challenge.
  13. Maintaining and improving the nation’s aging bridge infrastructure system is a priority for transportation authorities.
  14. Additionally, developing and maintaining the uniform procedures and policies required by government agencies becomes easier when one hires and trains specialists.
  15. Interpreting and understanding the enigmatic Fremont is even more complicated because they were not one clearly defined group.
  16. But creating and maintaining the GIWW, plus the Brownsville and Harlingen ship channels, has taken a heavy toll on the flats….
  17. As a result, establishing and maintaining the quality and uniformity of practice is a significant issue yet to be resolved
  18. Identifying and analyzing the sources of family stress has been a dominant research theme
  19. Removing and replacing the bacterium’s DNA is another major obstacle.
  20. Removing and replacing the rear wheel seems like a no-brainer until you try to do it without mucking up your hands, legs, clothing, and frame.
  21. Maintaining and expanding the multilateral trading system is essential for world growth.
  22. Analyzing and understanding the findings in terms of statistical significance, especially at the level of a local high school, and then applying the results to a broader audience is another process in which the Diplomate can provide consultation.

And now, those that took a plural verb:

Coordinated gerunds, shared direct object, plural verb

  1. Both receiving and giving support were related to negative affect after controlling for the effects of extraversion
  2. In addition, both receiving and giving support were correlated negatively with psychological symptoms.
  3. Interpreting and understanding the continuum of port-landscape evolution at one node of the global transportation system are possible only with reference to the production system of which that port constitutes one element. [ew, sounds bad]
  4. Second, monitoring and evaluating the quality of outputs are both retrospective (after the fact) and prospective (before the fact) — poor quality can be prevented.

So it looks like coordinated gerunds with a shared direct object are usually singular. But is that a syntactic fact, or is it just that usually when gerunds share a direct object, the speaker is considering several actions to be part of a single activity and overrides the plural agreement? Most of the examples with a singular verb could be seen as single activities. However, two of the items supports the idea that the syntax requires a singular subject for coordinated gerunds with a shared direct object. Look at item 9: Entering and leaving the house is a particularly high-risk activity. Unless we’re talking about an activity consisting of entering and leaving the house, this sentence is clearly talking about separate events. I checked the context for this one, and it was. And it still took a singular! And it sounded OK, unlike the example from the movie review! The same goes for item 10: raising and lowering the basket is fast and easy.

But if we say that coordinated gerunds with a shared direct object are syntactically singular, now we have to say something about when they take a plural verb. Presumably, this would happen only when it was clear that the activities were being considered individually, not collectively. Notice that two of the four examples use the correlative conjunctions both … and, which explicitly tells you the coordinated items are to be considered individually — and they sound grammatical to me. The remaining two examples have a plural verb, but you know what? They sound terrible to me, just like Nick Chordas’s sentence.

So in my grammar, at least, it looks like coordinated gerunds with a shared direct object are singular by default, and plural only in appropriate contexts. As for the people who wrote the sentences I found questionable, either their grammar is different from mine, or they or an editor got confused and second-guessed their choice of verb number. What do you think? Would you use singular or plural verbs the same as they’re used in these CoCA examples?


9 Responses to “More Coordinated Gerunds with Shared Direct Objects”

  1. Glen said

    “Notice that two of the four examples use the correlative conjunctions both … and, which explicitly tells you the coordinated items are to be considered individually — and they sound grammatical to me. The remaining two examples have a plural verb, but you know what? They sound terrible to me, just like Nick Chordas’s sentence.”

    And one of the others, item 4, has the word ‘both’ later in the sentence. That makes item 4 sound okay to me. I agree that the one remaining sentence, item 3, sounds terrible.

  2. The Ridger said

    Item three sounds bad, but the original sentence doesn’t. I think that’s because it wasn’t just “collecting-and-displaying” that was bad, both of the activities were bad. After all, in TS2, Jessie/Bullseye/Prospector hadn’t been displayed, only collected. The implicit presence of “both” seems to be the key: if you could put it in, the verb becomes plural whether “both” is actually there or not.

  3. Ellen K. said

    The plural examples all work for me if I make the effort to think of each verb as separate, and put a nice pause before the verb. Sometimes I really have to consciously make that effort.

    I really can’t say anything about what I would do in speaking and casual writing, or if I’d even ever use such a construction. I’ve no idea. If I was consciously thinking about it in careful writing (or editing of my writing), I think I might use the plural verb in certain cases, but likely with a “both”.

    I think in example 3, the very long D.O. noun phrase makes it problematic. Or, rather, moreso than the other examples. In both 3 and 4, if I were editing, I would change it to “is”. (I think the “both” in number 4 refers to what follows.) In number 3, adding “both” doesn’t really help because of the long D.O., and in number 4, adding “both” gives two boths, which is awkward. And I don’t see any benefit from emphasizing the separateness of the actions.

  4. Yabs said

    My teacher said that the object is adding a ing- and the subject is not what about that true..

  5. CHRISTINE said

    can you give a example of 5 sentences using gerund or g.phrase as a direct object,subject and object of prepositional . Thanks !5 sentences each.

  6. CHRISTINE said

    i need it now!

    • Neal said


      As I was saying, if you want to use online resources to get this done, I’ve already given you 26 sentences with gerund phrases as a subject! Just grab the first five of those! As for objects of prepositions, I suggest going to COCA and doing this search: “[i*] []”. For direct objects, try “[v.all] []” and then picking a few you like. You’ll need to omit those with “be” as the verb, but you should get plenty of examples of “like”+gerund, etc.

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