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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter II. Syntax


IT is advisable to make a few remarks on the participle and gerund together before taking them separately. As the word gerund is variously used, we first define it. A gerund is the verbal noun identical in form with any participle, simple or compound, that contains the termination -ing. Thus the verb write has the active participles writing, having written, being about to write, about to write, and the passive participles written, having been written, being written, about to be written, being about to be written. Any of these except written, about to write, about to be written, may be a gerund also; but while the participle is an adjective, the gerund is a noun, differing from other nouns in retaining its power (if the active gerund of a transitive verb) of directly governing another noun. Both these are of great importance for our purpose. The participle itself, even when confusion with the other cannot occur, is much abused; and the slovenly uses of it that were good enough in Burke’s time are now recognized solecisms. Again, the identity between the two forms leads to loose and unaccountable gerund constructions that will probably be swept away, as so many other laxities have been, with the advance of grammatical consciousness. We shall have to deal with both these points at some length. It is indeed no wonder that the forms in -ing should require close attention. Exactly how many old English terminations -ing is heir to is a question debated by historical grammarians, which we are not competent to answer. But we may point out that writing may now be (1) participle—I was writing; I saw him writing; writing piously, he acts profanely—, (2) gerund or full verbal noun—I object to your writing that—, (3) hybrid between gerund and participle—I do not mind you writing it—, (4) detached verbal noun—Writing is an acquired art—, (5) concrete noun—This writing is illegible. Moreover, the verbal noun writing has the synonym to write, obligatory instead of it in some connexions, better in some, worse in some, and impossible in others; compare, for instance: I do not like the trouble of writing; I shall not take the trouble to write; the trouble of writing is too much for him; it is a trouble to write; writing is a trouble. The grammatical difficulties, that is, are complicated by considerations of idiom. In these preliminary remarks, however, it is only with the distinction or want of distinction between participle and gerund that we are concerned. The participle is an adjective, and should be in agreement with a noun or pronoun; the gerund is a noun, of which it should be possible to say clearly whether, and why, it is in the subjective, objective, or possessive case, as we can of other nouns. That the distinction is often obscured, partly in consequence of the history of the language, will be clear from one or two facts and examples.
  1. The man is building contains what we should all now call, whether it is so or not historically, a participle or verbal adjective: the house is building (older but still living and correct English for the house is being built) contains, as its remarkable difference of meaning prepares us to believe, a gerund or verbal noun, once governed by a now lost preposition.
  2. In He stopped, laughing we have a participle; in He stopped laughing, a verbal noun governed directly by the verb; in He burst out laughing, a verbal noun governed by a vanished preposition.
  3. Present usage does not bear out the definite modern ideas of the distinction between participle and gerund as respectively adjective and noun. So long as that usage continues, there are various degrees of ambiguity, illustrated by the three following examples. It would be impossible to say, whatever the context, whether the writer of the first intended a gerund or a participle. In the second, a previous sentence would probably have decided the question. In the third, though grammar (again as modified by present usage) leaves the question open, the meaning of the sentence is practically decisive by itself.
    Can he conceive Matthew Arnold permitting such a book to be written and published about himself?—Times. And no doubt that end will be secured by the Commission sitting in Paris.—Times. Those who know least of them [the virtues] know very well how much they are concerned in other people having them.—Morley.
    In the second of these, if sitting is a participle, the meaning is that the end will be secured by the Commission, which is described by way of identification as the one sitting in Paris. If sitting is gerund, the end will be secured by the wise choice of Paris and not another place for its scene. If Commission’s were written, there could be no doubt the latter was the meaning. With Commission, there is, by present usage, absolutely no means of deciding between the two meanings apart from possible light in the context. In the third, common sense is able to tell us, though grammar gives the question up, that what is interesting is not the other people who have them, but the question whether other people have them.
We shall, in the section on the gerund, take up the decided position that all gerunds ought to be made distinguishable from participles. We are quite aware, however, that in the first place a language does not remodel itself to suit the grammarian’s fancy for neat classification; that secondly the confusion is not merely wanton or ignorant, but the result of natural development; that thirdly the change involves some inconveniences, especially to hurried and careless writers. On the other hand it is certain that the permanent tendency in language is towards the correct and logical, not from it; it is merely hoped that the considerable number of instances here collected may attract the attention of some writers who have not been aware of the question, and perhaps convince them that the distinction is a useful one, that a writer ought to know and let us know whether he is using a participle or a gerund, and that to abandon the gerund when it cannot be distinguished without clumsiness need cause no difficulty to any but the very unskilful in handling words.