Student Stumper 28: Gerunds v. Present Participles

QUESTION: What are all the ‘-ing’ words in the following sentence? He doesn’t like to waste time sitting around talking and drinking coffee.

ANSWER: I know there are some who don’t like using the term “gerund,” but I’m not part of that camp. In my mind, it’s easier to understand and teach English grammar when we distinguish gerunds from present participles. They both are formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb, but that’s where their similarities end.*

Gerunds behave like nouns. They can be used as single words or in phrases.  Gerunds and gerund phrases can be subjects and objects. They can also be appositives and complements. Let me offer examples to illustrate.

  1. Explaining grammar to students requires both logic and creativity. [gerund = subject]
  2. I enjoy explaining grammar to students and discussing grammar with colleagues. [gerund = direct object; there are 2 objects of “enjoy”]
  3. There’s much I love about teaching. [gerund = indirect object]
  4. The last topic, teaching advanced grammar, caused anxiety for more than one trainee. [gerund = appositive (a reduced adjective clause)]
  5. The challenge most find difficult to overcome is teaching mixed levels. [gerund = subject complement; “the challenge” = “teaching”]
  6. I had some difficulty teaching mixed levels. [gerund = complement; “teaching mixed levels” helps to describe and limit “difficulty”]

Do you agree with all six examples? I think most student books limit the presentation of gerunds to their roles as subjects and objects, but Jay Maurer in Focus on Grammar 5: An Integrated Skills Approach (2006) does address gerunds as complements. His discussion in Unit 15 would add a seventh example to my list: “He spends time reading” (260). Maurer identifies “reading” as an object complement, that is, a complement in a noun phrase. “Reading” is a complement to “time.” He offers another example with a negative gerund: “She found him not working” (260). We can now identify “sitting” in our original statement as an object complement: (He doesn’t like to waste time sitting around talking and drinking coffee.)

All right. So let’s define present participles. In my understanding, they differ from gerunds in that they cannot behave like nouns. Present participles either function as verbs or adjectives. We see the present participle in progressive tenses and reduced adverb clauses. We also see present participles as modifiers. My examples:

  1.  I am trying my best to explain my view on this grammar topic. [present participle as part of the present progressive]
  2. When researching grammar topics, I often turn to gurus like Azar, Biber, Greenbaum, and Quirk. [present participle with an active meaning, reduced from “When I research”]
  3. Grammar is not an interesting subject for anyone else in my family. [present participle as an adjective; it modifies “subject”]

Returning to the original statement, He doesn’t like to waste time sitting around talking and drinking coffee, I’d identify “talking and drinking” as present participles in an adverb phrase of time. There’s no subordinating conjunction, but the time relationship is clear. He can waste time and sit around while talking and drinking coffee. All the actions can be in progress at the same time.

Summary of answer: He doesn’t like + (what?) > The infinitive “to waste” is the object. “Time” is the object in the infinitive clause [to waste + (what?)]. “Sitting around” is the complement of “time.” “Talking and drinking coffee” is an adverbial phrase that expresses the idea “while.”

*I’ll end this discussion here, but I’m sure we can always continue it another time, especially since Biber, Conrad, et al could challenge me by asking me to identify the -ing word in the following example, which they give in Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2007): “There’s no denying it” (67).

16 Comments Add yours

  1. wilson Thilakaratna says:

    Educative,useful and excellent.
    Wilson from Sri Lanka.

  2. nliakos says:

    Well done, Jennifer! Thanks so much for your carefully researched and thought out response.

  3. Anushka Oshan says:

    Dear Madam, I am confused. As you have mentioned, can ” to waste” be an infinitive clause ? Please answer me. Madam, in the following example given in a revised edition of an old grammar book by N.D.V. PRASADA RAO, India, the ing form or Gerund is used as absolutely, according to Rao. It is ” Playing cards being his aversion, we did not play bridge.” Please be kind enough to explain it to me. God bless you. I am Anushka Oshan, Sri Lanka.

    1. Hello Anushka,

      I see “to waste” in the example sentence as the object of the negative verb “doesn’t like”: He doesn’t like to waste time.

      The sentence you shared from the other grammar book sounds a bit awkward to me, in all honesty. I would have expressed the idea with another structure: As playing cards was his aversion, we did not play bridge. Other adverbs (subordinating conjunctions) could be used: because, since, in light of the fact that, etc. The reduced adverb clause with both a gerund and a present participle is confusing. Even clearer alternatives: Because he was averse to playing cards, we did not play bridge./ Being averse to playing cards, he declined our invitation to play bridge.

  4. Anushka Oshan says:

    I am following your excellent , creative grammar lessons, almost every one. I came to know about you few months ago and I am going to be another new student of you from today. I wish you all the best in your future activities. I am Anushka Oshan

    1. Thank you. All my materials on YouTube, WordPress, and EnglishCafe are for free. In addition, most everything posted on my website is also free to teachers and students. Enjoy and best wishes!

  5. Henry Suh says:

    In example # 6, It’s not easy teaching mixed levels.,
    the gerund phrase “teaching mixed levels” looks to me like the actual subject; Teaching mixed levels is not easy.
    Does it make any sense?

    1. Yes, it makes sense. I’ve tried to explore “it” as a placeholder in the past. See this link.
      All posts remain open-ended, and I welcome discussion. I agree it might be clearer to identify “it” as the placeholder for “teaching mixed levels.” Then “easy” becomes the complement. See new example with noun complement. I think this is a clearer example.

  6. James says:

    Hello, Jennifer.

    I have found something in the two-volume masterpiece A GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE by George Oliver Curme.

    He says (on page 280 of Volume II) that the “gerundial construction after a preposition is much used.”

    His example: “He spends his spare time in reading.”

    He then gives this sentence: “He spends his time reading.”

    The good professor says that “reading” ih that sentence is a PARTICIPLE.


    1. Hello James,

      Thanks for stopping by this week!

      Oh, grammar is a lovely thing to debate! I would question the use of “in” with the verb phrase “spend time.” In mind, the only debate should be over what to call that -ing form, a gerund or a participle. Whatever you wish to call it, the use of a preposition is not required.
      Spend time doing
      Spend time reading
      Spend time talking
      Spend time practicing

      I don’t believe “spend time” + “in” + (-ing form of verb) is standard. Would you agree?
      My apologies to George Oliver Curme for disagreeing!


  7. James says:

    Thank you very much, Jennifer, for your helpful comments.

    You have given me much food for thought.


  8. V P Kannan says:

    Dear Jennifer

    Among the verbal phrases, the difference between gerund and participle lies in what function it performs. If the function is that of noun, it is gerund or that of adjective, participle. Like adjectives, participle complements nouns or pronouns. Sometimes, it can even complement verbs. The examples follow:

    Reading books is my hobby. – ‘Reading books’ is gerund as it functions as subject/noun.

    Reading the book, he has seen her. – ‘Reading the book’ is participle cum adjective as it complements the subject/pronoun ‘he’.

    He has seen her reading the book. – ‘Reading the book’ is participle cum adjective as it complements the object/pronoun ‘her’.

    He walked holding the walker. – ‘Holding the walker’ is participle cum adverb as it complements the verb ‘walked’ and the possible question for the given sentence is ‘How did he walk?’, a clear-cut question of adverb.

    Therefore, restricting the use of participles to your three examples may be misleading. Besides, the participle cannot be used as (complete) verbs; but they are used as only a part of complete verb along with the auxiliary verb.

    Though different from your viewpoint, you may please consider the above points.

    With regards

    V P Kannan
    Chennai, Tamil Nadu

    1. Hello! Thank you for taking the time to post your reflections on this grammar topic. As you can see from previous comments, it is a topic that causes us teachers to really pause and consider different possibilities. Yes, I agree that participles can only be part of the verb form and not verbs in and of themselves. I returned to the topic of participles in a post last year, by the way. You may appreciate the fact that I looked at other roles participles may play.

      As much as I love to delve into grammar topics, I need to remind myself that at the end of the day we simply want students to speak with accuracy — if there is a small degree of uncertainty with labels, but a rather strong instinct for what sounds correct in actual communication, then all is still well.

      1. V P KANNAN says:

        Dear Jennifer

        Thanks for your kind response. The article tends to treat even the participles as gerunds. For example, in the sentence ‘I had some difficulty teaching mixed levels’, ‘teaching mixed levels’ is treated as gerund whereas it would be, in my opinion, a participle/adjective because it complements/describes the noun ‘difficulty’. Complementing the noun is generally the function of an adjective, though nouns are also used in apposition similarly.

        Regarding the original statement, ‘He doesn’t like to waste time sitting around talking and drinking coffee’, I would identify ‘sitting around’ as a participle cum adverb because it describes the verb ‘waste (time)’ with the question of how the time is to be wasted. Besides, ‘talking and drinking’ is also a participle cum adverb as it complements the verbal phrase (participle cum adverb) ‘sitting around’.

        Of course, you talk about exploring the different possibilities of making the students understand and speak with accuracy. However, if the existing conceptualizations and explanations are fairly straightforward, they can be utilized.

        Surprisingly, participle is the most difficult concept to understand for us, Tamils, because our language Tamil doesn’t use participles but uses gerunds and infinitives only among verbal phrases.

        With regards

        V P Kannan
        Chennai, Tamil Nadu

      2. Hello again!
        How we love grammar, don’t we? Only language teachers will happily find time to reflect on grammar at a late hour of the day!

        As I mention in one of my posts, some do not even like the term gerund, so I find it interesting to learn that Tamil has gerunds but not participles! Maybe it would be easier to talk about -ing forms of verbs and present their different functions rather than trying to distinguish between gerunds and participles. Nevertheless, the terms exist and most of my reference books (the majority are Pearson publications) identify gerunds as complements in phrases like those I used with have difficulty and spend time. There are other structures, though not high in number, where one noun complements another. The one that comes to mind right now is make/elect + (whom) + (noun complement): They elected him president. “President” complements the object “him.”

        Perhaps I will have yet another post on this topic. Year after year, I find it both tricky and interesting.

        Best regards,

  9. V P Kannan says:

    Dear Jennifer

    Though not related to the above topic, I would like you to clarify the following point as it is very tricky for me.

    For the question, “Whom did he criticize yesterday?”, should the answer be “That was me” or “That was I”. I think “That was me” sounds natural.

    Thank you

    With regards

    V P Kannan
    Chennai, Tamil Nadu

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