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A disappearing grammatical term
Oct 12, 2012

 

Over the years of Twisty Tongue’s existence, I have often heard from a reader identified only by the initial “M.” There’s no indication in M’s messages as to whether or not the correspondent is male or female. For some reason, I think this reader is a male, so I’ll use male pronouns.
In his latest note, he says, “It’s a long time since I went to school but I do remember nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. I have to admit I don’t remember learning about gerunds.”
I’m not surprised. I don’t think anyone has been taught about gerunds for many years. Modern grammars don’t even mention them.
Even Cambridge touches on the term only in passing. Here’s what that source says: “Older grammars analyse words like asking as ‘verbal nouns’ or ‘gerunds’ ... Modern grammars do not use the term gerund: asking would be analysed as a verb.”
The 1983 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage devotes more than two pages to the gerund. But a more recent Fowler (2004) says only:  “Gerund: see verbal noun.”
So what do these terms mean? Fowler says: “A verbal noun (also called a gerund) is a form of a verb ending in ing that acts as a noun.” An example is, “Running is good exercise.”
Not every ing word is a gerund. When a verb form (verbal) is used as an adjective, we call it a “participle.”
I’m sure M remembers being taught about dangling participles, which is what happens when the verb is not attached to the sentence’s subject. For example, “Running to catch the bus, my knee was twisted.”
The above sentence implies that “my knee” was the runner. A better construction would be, “Running to catch the bus, I stumbled and twisted my knee.”
The verbal running in both sentences is a participle of the verb, “to run.” In both sentences, the word is used as a verb, but in “Running is good exercise,” running serves as a noun — a gerundial form of the verb, “to run.”
Verbal nouns are used so often and are so handy, it’s easy to see why they developed. Not only is, “To run is good exercise,” an awkward sentence, it isn’t good English. As with the dangling participle, there is no subject. We need a noun. So we invented the gerund, although we could also have said, “It is good exercise to run.” Still awkward, but correct.
The Public School Grammar (1899) deals with the difference between a participle and a gerund, saying, “A careful pupil ought to be able to decide whether a word is a participle or a gerund, if he keeps in mind that the former is always partly verb and partly adjective, and the latter partly verb and partly noun.”
But even in 1899, there was controversy regarding participles and gerunds. This old textbook adds, “As infinitives, participles, and gerunds are not treated as separate parts of speech, it is better to class them as verbs.”
That’s exactly what we do today. That gerund is our “verbal noun.”