Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.)

10 Responses to “Adjective, Participle, or Gerund?”

  1. Is there a similar test for past participles? My problem is especially with ‘fascinated’ etc, following ‘be’ and themselves followed by ‘by’ – adjective or passive verb?

    She was fascinated to hear what he had to say. – OK, an adjective
    She was fascinated by what he said. – I think passive verb, but?
    He was thrilled at the thought of the holiday. – adjective
    He was thrilled by her answer. – passive verb?

    Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary has the following example sentences:

    fascinated (adjective) – I’ve always been fascinated by his ideas.
    thrill (verb) – I was thrilled by your news.

    Longman and Macmillan also list ‘fascinated by’ under adjective, but Oxford Dictionaries Online have this example under fascinate (verb) – I’ve always been fascinated by computers.

    I’m a bit confused by it all! (adjective or passive verb?)

  2. the ridger said

    If you can flip the sentence so the subject becomes a direct object and the by-NP becomes the subject, you’ve got a passive verb. His answer thrilled her. What he said fascinated her.

  3. strangeguitars said

    I love anything to do with diagnostics in grammar! This is beautiful; more, more, more!

  4. John Cowan said

    Or you can do what the Cambridge Grammar does and call them gerund-participles, a single form with many uses.

    • Neal said

      True, I could. Their point is valid: There is not a single verb in the entire English language for which there are separate gerund and present-participle forms, so why are we even bothering to make a distinction? For sentences like She stopped loving him today, I’m inclined to agree, since it really does seem arbitrary to choose. (Choosing gerund only makes sense if you’re assuming that since it’s a complement to stopped, it must be a direct object, and therefore a noun, and therefore a gerund.) Overall, though, I still find it more convenient to talk about gerunds and participles than to say “X-ing is a g-p that’s more like a verb!” or “X-ing is a g-p that’s more like a noun!”

      • Anglo-Nut said

        My difficulty with CGEL and the term ‘gerund-participle’, is that many who fancy the term don’t appear to recognise the ‘gerunds’ that, in my understanding, are not ‘participles’. They appear to confuse form with application, happily replacing ‘gerunds’ with ‘present participles’ as though they are one and the same thing; this is implied by the dual terminology.

        For example, the following sentences use ‘gerunds’:

        1. She was intolerant of his spoiling the clean floors with his muddied boots.
        2. John requested an explanation for their unbecoming eating.
        3. Mary, please explain John’s muttering.

        Those who are enamoured with the ‘gerund-participle’ apparently believe that simply replacing the possessive noun or pronoun with an objective noun or pronoun is quite acceptable because the so-called ‘gerund-participle’ has verb attributes. This approach allows the above to become:

        1. She was intolerant of him spoiling the clean floors with his muddied boots.
        2. John requested an explanation for them unbecoming eating.
        3. Mary, please explain John muttering.

        It is my understanding that when an objective noun or pronoun introduces a ‘present participle’ in a subordinate clause, the main clause in which the object is the objective noun or pronoun must be true and grammatically correct without the subordinate clause. Were the amended statements to be truncated after the objective nouns or pronouns, they would not necessarily be grammatically correct and certainly wouldn’t be true; see the following:

        1. She was intolerant of him.
        2. John requested an explanation for them.
        3. Mary, please explain John.
        When possessives are not used, it is no longer clear that the ‘gerund’ phrase rather than the person performing the relevant action, is the object of the sentence. I even saw a statement to the effect that either ‘his’ or ‘him’ could be used as the subject of the subordinate clause.

        How do you view this assertion that any ‘gerund’ may be regarded as a ‘participle’? Is there any rationale to support the failure to use possessives with such ‘gerunds’?

      • I think you’ve tapped into a very important concept for understanding the GGEL: category versus function. “Gerund-participle” is the category formed by adding -ing to the base form of every verb in English. Like most of grammar, it is the names that give us the most trouble: the archaic sense from Latin of “perfect, meaning “completed” pops to mind. Even if the category name makes sense, we are still in trouble because the category name pigeonholes us into thinking that the name equals the function—and that there is only one function. Would that ’twere. One of the main goals—perhaps the main goal—of the CGEL is to produce a grammar—a system of describing how English works—that is as simple as possible. They have adopted the approach of categorizing words by their inflectional shape. How about the analogy of a hammer? You can use it to hammer in nails (its primary function) plus you can use it for any number of other functions: putting in screws, smashing your windshield to get into your because you’re locked out, holding up a convenience store, or as a weight to stop papers from blowing away—just to name a few. However, you don;t start calling the hammer a screwdriver, car key, gun, or paperweight just because it can perform those functions. You still call it a hammer—and that convention is common, naming an object for its primary function. The CGEL tries to do the same thing with grammar. The verb ending with -ing, like the hammer, does not change shape when you use it for different functions. “Gerund-partciple” is appropriate because the primary function of the “ing-verb” is probably evenly split between the two functions—which is really three functions: gerund (e.g., That tapping is driving me nuts), participle referring to the function of adjective (e.g., What is that tapping noise) and the verb form used in the continuous forms (e.g., I am tapping that keg as we speak). So it’s really a “noun/adjective/continuous-aspect verbal”. I like “ing-verb”

  5. Steve Zag said

    I like the phrase ‘participial adjectives’ but can you make a “participial adverb” (without adding ‘ly’)? I freaking doubt it. 🙂

  6. adam said

    You went to the trouble of making a handsome flow chart graphic, and included a note that says “In the chart, ‘AD-VERB’ is my way of indicating an adverb that modifies only verbs, such as carefully“, but the chart uses ADVERB instead, which may confuse non-native speakers and some others. I’m just sayin.

  7. Simon Smith said

    Thanks. I will use this in my grammar classes.
    Fishing rods- rods that fish!
    Writing materials – materials that write!

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