Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Happy Gerund Appreciation Day!

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2010

“And that’s the end of the chapter,” I say, closing the book. “Now, boys, time for the brushing of the teeth. No circumflatulating!”

I could have told Doug and Adam, “Time to brush your teeth” (and I sometimes do). I could also have said, “Tooth-brushing time” (and I sometimes do). But I like using the gerund phrase the brushing of the teeth. It somehow lends more gravitas to the process.

It’s strange how in English, there are two ways of putting together a gerund phrase. The way I used in time for the brushing of the teeth was to put the direct object of brushing (or at least, what would be the direct object if this were a verb instead of a gerund) in an of prepositional phrase. But it could also have been just time for brushing your teeth, without an of. Get rid of the of, and it takes the definite article with it: *the brushing the teeth is no good. That’s some of the stuff I get into in my latest guest script for the Grammar Girl podcast, which was released today. For a Thanksgiving-related grammar piece, I figured gerunds were a good way to go, given that the name of the holiday is not only a gerund. In the podcast I wrote about how even though all gerund phrases act syntactically as nouns (or noun phrases), you can still draw a distinction between those that are more noun-like (for example, the brushing of the teeth) and those that are more verb-like (e.g brushing your teeth). Here, I want to talk about some interesting properties of gerunds that I ended up leaving out of the podcast script.

In one draft of the script, I noted that “nouny” gerunds put the verb’s direct object in an of prepositional phrase, and its subject in a possessive determiner. Using the tooth-brushing example again, I could talk about Doug and Adam’s brushing of their teeth. But then I realized that it was more complicated than that. Sometimes the subject can be realized either as a possessive or in an of prepositional phrase. With an intransitive verb like meow (which doesn’t take a direct object), you could say the cats’ meowing or the meowing of the cats, with the subject in either place. The contestant’s singing or the singing of the contestant. The subject doesn’t even have to be doing something willfully, as it does with so-called unergative verbs like meow and dance. With an unaccusative verb (that is, a verb whose subject is filling a patient role), such as suffer, you can say either Christ’s suffering or the suffering of Christ.

Even though either slot will work for a subject, you have to choose one. You can’t put in two subjects, one in each slot. Even if Doug and Adam like to imitate cats by meowing, and one day they and the cats are all meowing at once, Doug and Adam’s meowing of the cats doesn’t work. Nor does the cats’ meowing of Doug and Adam. I didn’t asterisk them as ungrammatical, but only because you could interpret meow as the transitive “cause someone to meow”, and have in mind Doug and Adam forcing the cats to meow, or even stranger, the cats forcing Doug and Adam to meow.

Now just because a verb is intransitive doesn’t mean you can put its subject into an of PP in a gerund phrase. Eat can also be an intransitive verb, in sentences like He’s always eating. But no matter how you set up the context, I think a sentence like The bomb scare interrupted the eating of the students in the cafeteria is going to sound like the students are getting eaten.

Trying to sum up when you can realize a verb’s subject in an of PP in a gerund phrase, I guess you’d have to say something like this:

  1. If the verb has both agent and patient semantic roles, the agent must be realized as a possessive determiner in a gerund phrase, and the patient (if expressed at all) in an of PP.
  2. Otherwise, the lone semantic role can be realized either as a possessive determiner or in an of PP.

Of course, I haven’t even touched the issue of when a verb’s subject can be realized in a gerund phrase as just an ordinary nominative form: Doug and Adam’s brushing their teeth vs. Doug and Adam brushing their teeth. And I haven’t looked too closely at verbs with semantic roles other than agent or patient. That’ll have to wait for some other post.

8 Responses to “Happy Gerund Appreciation Day!”

  1. Mico said

    Your comments about meowing reminded me of something I heard years ago, possibly from comedian John Leguizamo: “Why you throw rocks my dog? He no bark you?” Since then my family has used bark and meow as transitive verbs.

  2. Ryan said

    In the podcast I wrote about how even though all gerund phrases act syntactically as nouns (or noun phrases), you can still draw a distinction between those that are more noun-like (for example, the brushing of the teeth) and those that are more verb-like (e.g brushing your teeth).

    Sorry if I’m being dense, but I can’t tell: are you saying that even though morphologically there is one kind of gerund-participle in English, we can distinguish two separate kinds syntactically?

    • The Ridger said

      That’s exactly what he’s saying.

      The prepositional bit works for other deverbal nouns, too. “Germany’s defeat in WWII”, fine. “The defeat of Germany in WWII”, fine. “The defeat of Germany by the Allies in WWII”, fine. “Germany’s defeat in WWII by the Allies”, maybe a bit odd. “The Allies’ defeat of Germany in WWII”, fine again. But, “The Allies’ defeat in WWII” – syntactically fine but historically wrong. Or, rather, syntactically fine EXCEPT that it doesn’t mean what the others mean.

      It’s like with dative passives – you can make them, but only if you include the direct object. You can omit the dative if the “direct object” is the subject, but not the other way around – “my brother was given a book”, but not “my brother was given”, though both “a book was given” and “a book was given (to) my brother” work.

      … It’s not actually the same as the gerund/gerundive (or whatever names you use), but it’s sort of the same. I think.

      • Ryan said

        If there’s no morphological distinction between the more verb-like and the more noun-like versions of gerunds, and the difference is only in the distribution of determiners and prepositional phrases, then why not just say that gerunds can appear in two different constructions?

    • Neal said

      Actually, that’s a very logical way of seeing it, and if I had to do it again, I might phrase it that way in the introduction. I’d even go farther, and take the CGEL position that there isn’t even a distinction between gerunds and present participles: There is only the gerund-participle, and various constructions that it participates in, with slightly different meanings depending on which construction.

  3. lynneguist said

    Surely it’s Gerund Appreciating Day?

  4. Are you sure there’s no echo of Dr. Seuss in your nightly orders? That’s where we got our bedtime gerund, still in use long after the kids are grown:

    Sleep thoughts are spreading
    Throughout the whole land.
    The time for night-brushing of teeth is at hand …

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