27) Verbals

Verbals

Verbals, or non-finite verbs, are words which have a verb form, but cannot be inflected, and can work as nouns (gerund and infinitive), adjectives (participle and infinitive), or along with forms of ‘be’ in forming the progressive and perfect progressive tenses (participles). If we think back to inflection, this means that these verbs cannot have their forms changed for person, number, tense or mood. In other words, the verbal will have one form, e.g., ‘running’, and it cannot be changed into another form and still be called that verbal.

In contrast, a finite verb is the typical verb which can be inflected for person, number, tense and mood. So if we take the base form verb ‘hate’, we have:

past tense: I hated the food.

present tense: I hate the food. / He hates the food.

So ‘hate’, ‘hates’ and ‘hated’ are all finite verbs in these particular sentences. That doesn’t mean they always are though, as we will see later.

Let’s look at the verbal forms gerunds, participles and infinitives next. You will likely find an online dictionary, or this resource useful for finding the spellings for verbals.

1) Gerunds

A gerund is a verbal, or non-finite verb, which uses a a verb form to function as a noun. They are all made by adding an ‘ing’ on the end of the base form of the verb (the verb spelling seen in the dictionary). Sometimes the letter at the end of the verb is doubled, then ‘ing’ is added. For example, the base form verb ‘run’ becomes ‘running’ as in:

Running is her favourite exercise.

Note here that ‘running’ is working as a noun, but still has that relation to the verb ‘run’. Understanding gerunds is helpful when trying to differentiate nouns from verbs because when we come across a gerund in a sentence there can be a part of our mind telling us it is a noun (which it is), but another seeing the connection to the verb. Now we know that it is a noun which uses a verb form, finding nouns might be a bit easier. Let me clarify what I mean by this. Take the sentence:

Germany is a country.

Now that I have a reasonable idea of what a noun is, there isn’t too much doubt in my mind that ‘Germany’ is the noun here – without even breaking down the sentence too much. Of course there are other checks we can do, but I am talking about just looking at a sentence and seeing it straight away, almost naturally. However, compare how easy it is to recognise the noun function in the above with the earlier sentence of:

Running is her favourite exercise.

There is something about the word ‘running’ that seems close to a verb, so there is something in my head making me doubt that it is a noun. This is because it is formed from taking the base verb ‘run’ and adding ‘ning’. There are a few methods we can use to check it is a noun. The quickest, and therefore my favourite, is to try replacing the gerund with a pronoun. All nouns can be replaced by a respective pronoun, so if the sentence still makes sense with a pronoun put in, it must be a noun. Pronouns don’t replace any other word type, so they are perfect for testing this. Let’s try it:

Running is her favourite exercise.

It is her favourite exercise.

Great, that works perfectly, so ‘running’ must be a noun, and, because it’s both a noun and from the ‘ing’ form it must be a gerund.

The other most telling aspect that ‘running’ is a noun in the sentence ‘running is her favourite exercise’ is it is the subject of the sentence – the thing that is being talked about. The subject is always a noun, or pronoun, because the subject is the thing being talked about – and that needs to be named; therefore, the the naming word classes nouns, or pronouns, are used. The very idea that ‘running’ is naming the act of running here, rather than talking about it as an action in a sentence, is also key. It is a bit like the difference between naming ‘football’ (a noun) as a sport, and talking about kicking a ball.

It can also help to find the verb and try to see what the subject of that verb is. So, in the above, we have the verb ‘is’; which noun, or pronoun is this verb connected to? In the most common constructions the subject can be found before the verb, which further suggests ‘running’ is the subject. Then if we ask ‘what is being talked about in the sentence?’, we get the answer ‘running’. Actually, this sentence might be quite confusing, because ‘her favourite exercise’ is actually a predicate noun phrase, linking back to rename the subject ‘running’ via the verb ‘is’. So, it is perhaps easy to get ‘running’ and ‘her favourite exercise’ mixed up because they actually are the same thing.

The above analysis of sentences is definitely worth doing. However, if we want a really quick method for finding out whether an ‘ing’ ending word is a noun, and therefore a gerund, the pronoun replacement method is our friend. Other than it being generally quick, it is also quicker than other methods because gerunds can appear at different places in sentences, just like nouns. This generally leads to extra thought having to be put in. For example, when the gerund appears as the direct object of the verb at the end of the sentence we could have:

He loves running.

If we replace this with a pronoun we get:

He loves it.

Or, the gerund can be the direct object of the verb in the middle of a sentence as in:

She loves running more than any other exercise.

Replace that with a pronoun and we get:

She loves it more than any other exercise.

Both of these replacements work nicely. Oppose this with trying to replace a verb with a pronoun as in replacing ‘ran’ with ‘it’:

He ran away.

He it away. (incorrect)

It clearly doesn’t work.

This method can get a bit confusing when we get onto gerund phrases. We will deal with gerund phrases in detail later, when look at phrases in detail. Briefly, a gerund phrase is a phrase which begins with a gerund. To make it work we have to try and think of gerund phrases in the same way that we think of noun phrases. Let’s look at all the things a noun/noun phrase can be in a sentence because a gerund will be able to be those things to. Let’s start with an example of a gerund phrase as the subject of the sentence:

Running marathons is my hobby.

Note here that the gerund phrase ‘running marathons’ is the subject, ‘is’ is the verb and ‘my hobby’ is the predicate noun phrase linking back to rename the subject ‘running marathons’. However, if we were to just replace ‘running’ with a pronoun we get:

It marathons is my hobby. (incorrect)

This is wrong because we need to replace the whole gerund phrase with ‘it’ for this to work, as in:

Running marathons is my hobby.

It is my hobby.

Now the pronoun replacement works nicely.

Let’s look at an example of a gerund phrase as the direct object of the verb:

She loves running marathons in the Spring.

Here we have the subject ‘She’, the verb ‘loves’ and the direct object gerund phrase ‘running marathons in the spring’. Remember to replace the whole phrase:

She loves it.

Here is an example of a gerund phrase as the indirect object of a verb:

The school gives winning competitions high praise.

Here we have the gerund phrase ‘winning competitions’ as the indirect object of the verb ‘gives’. Remember we find the indirect object by finding the direct object first, which involves asking the question:

subject + verb + what/whom?

In this case that is: ‘The school gives what?’ which gives the answer ‘high praise’ – the direct object. Then we take the direct object and ask:

subject + verb + direct object + to what/to whom?

In this case that that is ‘The school gives high praise to what?’ which gives the answer ‘winning competitions’ – the indirect object. Replace it with a pronoun and we get:

The school gives winning competitions high praise.

The school gives it high praise.

And this works fairly nicely. Admittedly, the initial sentence is a bit of an awkward one. It would probably be more common to hear something like: 

The school praises competition winners.

Gerunds can also be the objects of other non-finite verbs: namely, infinitives. We deal with infinitives later, but, for now, just remember they are non-finite verbs that involve ‘to’ + the base form of the verb, such as ‘to think’. For example:

He tends to think winning the debate is all that matters.

Here we have the infinitive ‘to think’ + the gerund phrase ‘winning the debate’. If we replace the whole gerund phrase with a pronoun we get:

He tends to think it is all that matters.

Again, this works.

Gerunds can also be the object of a preposition. Here is an example of that:

He wants see her before leaving his home town.

Here we have the preposition ‘before’ and the object of the preposition gerund phrase ‘leaving his home town’. Replace it with a pronoun and we get:

He wants to see her before it.

And that works too.

After doing this we have two real ways of finding whether the ‘ing’ form is a noun, and therefore a gerund:

1) Use the pronoun replacement method for the gerund, or whole gerund phrase.

2) Figure out what part of the sentence it is, and see if that is one of the usual functions of a noun.

1.1 Present participles are also verbals that end in ‘ing’

The nice thing about the gerund form is every single one of them ends in ‘ing’, even the ones that come from verb base forms which are otherwise irregular. For example, ‘be’ becoming ‘being’ and ‘fly’ becomes ‘flying’. This would make it very easy to find them if it wasn’t for the fact that another word class also ends this way: the present participles.

We look at participles in detail, after this section on gerunds, so there will be a detailed discussion on the difference further down the page, here. However, I want to quickly look at one aspect of the differences right away because we have covered the concepts necessary.

We will see that present participles sometimes work as adjectives later on. However, they also work to form the progressive tenses. In the following examples you will find the progressive form next to its name, and I have tried to replace the present participle with a pronoun underneath to show they aren’t nouns. Finally, in some of these examples, the ‘ing’ present participle forms are working both as part of forming the tenses, and as predicate adjectives.

Progressive past tense: ‘was/were’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He was singing.’

Pronoun replacement: ‘He was it.’ (not equivalent)

 

Perfect progressive past tense: ‘had been’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He had been singing.’

Pronoun replacement: ‘He had been it.’ (not equivalent)

 

Progressive present tense: different forms of ‘be’ (‘am/is/are’) + present participle

e.g., ‘He is singing.’

Pronoun replacement: ‘He is it.’ (not equivalent)

 

Progressive future tense: ‘will be’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He will be singing.’

Pronoun replacement: ‘He will be it.’ (not equivalent)

 

Perfect progressive future tense: ‘will have been’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He will have been singing.’

Pronoun replacement: ‘He will have been it.’ (not equivalent)

So, whenever we see any of these forms with an ‘ing’ word, we should be thinking ‘present participle’. Moreover, the pronoun replacements don’t sound right because the present participle is not working as a noun. Therefore, the replacement examples given are not equivalents.

Now, if we compare with gerunds:

I love singing.

I love it.

 

Singing makes me happy.

It makes me happy.

 

He enjoys singing more than anything else.

He enjoys it more than anything else.

Note that the gerund ‘singing’ is not being used as part of a tense form construction like the present participles; instead, it is just acting as a noun. Here is one that can be a bit confusing:

Singing is his favourite activity.

This can be confusing because it has ‘is’ near singing, and the perfect present tense can be ‘is’ + present participle. Nevertheless, the verb ‘is’ comes after ‘singing’, not before, in the perfect present tense construction. We can also remember that singing is the subject of the sentence, and that it can be replaced with a pronoun, as in:

Singing is his favourite activity.

It is his favourite activity.

If we remember these different forms it helps to differentiate these often similar feeling words.

2) Participles

2.1 Past participles

Past participles take the base verb form and commonly added’, ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘en’, or ‘n’ on the end to either function as an adjective or to help form the perfect, and perfect progressive, tenses. Let’s look at them as adjectives first.

2.1.1 Past participles as adjectives

Past participles can work as adjectives by modifying nouns. The form they take to do this is different between regular and irregular verbs. When we are dealing with a regular verb, we mostly see ‘ed’ or ‘d’ added on to the end of the base verb form, which is the same as the past tense form. When the base verb is irregular, there are a variety of endings used. Let’s look at some regular verbs first:

Base verb form: shatter

Past participle form: shattered

Past participle as adjective example: The shattered window let the cold air in.

Simple past tense verb example: The window shattered into pieces.

Here we see the regular verb ‘shatter’ become ‘shattered’ by adding ‘ed’ on the end, making it a past participle. Note that the simple past tense verb of ‘shatter’ is also ‘shattered’ as in ‘The window shattered into pieces.’ The spelling of the past participle and the simple past tense are the same for all regular verbs. This means they can easily be mixed up, so we need to work hard at understanding the difference in function.

In the past participle as adjective example, ‘shattered’ is working as an adjective modifying the noun ‘window’. This is giving us an extra descriptive quality about the window, by letting us know it is a broken one. However, due to it being formed from the verb ‘shatter’, it also has that link to the action of a verb, letting us know something about the way it has broken; that is, into small pieces by some sort of force.

Compare this to the simple past tense verb example where the verb ‘shattered’ is telling us about the action that happened to the window, making it a verb. This has taken the base form ‘shatter’ and inflected it with ‘ed’ to give us the past tense – something the past participle cannot do. The past participle ‘shattered’ will always be ‘shattered’ – it cannot be inflected into anything else.

The difference between these two examples is quite subtle, and can be hard to recognise in a sentence as they are spelt the same. Essentially, the adjective is giving a property about the window, while the verb is talking about the action of something shattering.

Now let’s have a look at an example with an irregular verb:

Base verb form: drive

Past participle form: driven

Simple past tense form: drove

Past participle as adjective example : He was a driven person, which made it easier to succeed.

Simple past tense verb example: He drove miles to see her.

Here we see the irregular verb ‘drive’ having an ‘n’ added onto the end to become the past participle ‘driven’. Note that the simple past tense form of ‘drive’ is ‘drove’, not ‘driven’. This is because it is an irregular verb, and they don’t follow the same rules in forming their past participle, by definition. In the adjective example, we have the past participle ‘driven’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun ‘person’. This is giving us an extra property about the person, rather than talking about the action of driving. For comparison, in the simple past tense ‘He drove miles to see her.’ the verb ‘drove’ is telling us the action the subject ‘he’ did. This is a nice example for seeing the difference between the past participle and the simple past tense verb. However, it is perhaps not so good for seeing the similarities. Let’s look at another irregular verb example:

Base verb form: fall

Past participle form: fallen

Simple past tense form: fell

Past participle as adjective example : The fallen tree blocked the road.

Simple past tense verb example: The tree fell in the road.

Here the irregular verb ‘fall’ has an ‘en’ added onto the end to become the past participle ‘fallen’. Note the simple past tense form of ‘fell’, rather than ‘fallen’. This is because it is an irregular verb, and they don’t follow the same rules in forming their past participle, by definition. In the adjective example, we have the past participle ‘fallen’ modifying the noun ‘tree’ to give an extra quality about the state of the tree. This is telling us the tree has a quality of being on the ground – while also telling us something about how it got there. For comparison, in the simple past tense ‘The tree fell in the road’ the verb ‘fell’ is describing the action of the tree falling in the road. Despite these differences, the two sentences do have the origin ‘fall’ in common, and they are alluding to something similar.

It is worth looking at the difference between a past participle as an adjective and a more common descriptive adjective. For example:

The shattered window let the cold air in.

The large window let the cold air in.

Notice how ‘shattered’ has that link to the verb ‘shatter’, while ‘large’ doesn’t. This means that the past participle as an adjective has that extra action-like quality to it.

Past participles can also be predicate adjectives. Let’s look at an example of that:

Base verb form: break

Past participle form: broken

Simple past tense form: broke

Past participle as predicate adjective example : The window is broken.

Simple past tense verb example: He broke the window.

In the example ‘The window is broken.’ the past participle ‘broken’ is modifying the noun ‘window’ to describe it as a broken window. Therefore, it is working as a predicate adjective, looping back onto the subject. Meanwhile, the past simple verb ‘broke’ is talking about the action which led to the window being broken.

2.1.2 Past participle helping create the perfect and perfect progressive tenses

The past participle can also work to form the perfect, and perfect progressive, tenses, along with different forms of ‘be’. Here is a table summarising the forms for the perfect, and perfect progressive, tenses:

Tense / Aspect name Construction Example
Past tenses    
Perfect past tense ‘had’ + the past participle He had gone home before the fight.
Perfect progressive past tense ‘had been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He had been running marathons for years before winning the gold medal.
Present tenses    
Perfect present tense ‘has/have’ + the past participle We have won the race.
Perfect progressive present tense ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ (‘been’ is the past participle here) + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) You have been forgetting her birthday for years.
Future tenses    
Perfect future tense ‘will have’ + past participle I will have retired before my job becomes redundant.
Perfect progressive future tense ‘will have been’ (‘been’ is the past participle here)+ the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.

Now let’s look at them again, focusing on the past participle bit; I will just go over the present tense examples.

Perfect present tense: ‘has/have’ + the past participle

Example: We have won the race.

Here we have the past participle of the verb ‘win’, which is ‘won’, being added onto the end of ‘have’ to form the perfect present tense. The past participle and the simple past tense version of ‘win’ are actually both ‘won’, making it hard to see the difference here. If we get rid of ‘have’, the past participle ‘won’ actually turns into a simple past tense verb:

We won the race.

Note how this finite verb form can also be inflected into the present tense, as in:

We win the race.

Or

He wins the race.

However, note how the past participle example can’t be changed to ‘win’:

We have win the race. (incorrect)

This shows the difference between the two: the past participle example can’t be inflected (non-finite) while the past tense one can (finite).

OK, let’s look at the other example:

Perfect progressive present tense: ‘has been’ or ‘have been'(‘been’ is the past participle here) + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

Example: You have been forgetting her birthday for years.

Here we have the form ‘have been’ + the present participle ‘forgetting’ to give us the perfect progressive present tense. The word ‘been’ is the past participle of the verb ‘be’. It is easier to tell that ‘been’ is a past participle for the simple fact that ‘be’ is an irregular verb, meaning its simple past tense and past participle forms are different. This means that ‘been’ is always a past participle. The simple past tense of ‘be’ is ‘was/were’, as we saw earlier.

2.2 Present participles

Present participles take the base verb form (form in dictionary) and add ‘ing’ on the end to either function as an adjective or to help form the progressive and perfect progressive tenses. Let’s take a look at some examples of them as adjectives first.

2.2.1 Present participles as adjectives

Both regular and irregular verbs form the present participle by adding ‘ing’ onto the end.

Let’s look at some examples of regular verbs first:

Base verb form: challenge

Present participle form: challenging

Present participle as adjective example : His challenging behaviour was becoming unbearable.

Simple past tense form: challenged

Simple past tense verb example: He challenged everyone he met to a fight.

Here we have the base verb ‘challenge’ becoming a present participle by having ‘ing’ put onto the end and making it ‘challenging’. The present participle ‘challenging’ is modifying the noun ‘behaviour’ by giving it an extra descriptive property, thus making it an adjective. If we compare it with the simple past tense sentence ‘He challenged everyone he met to a fight.’ we see that ‘challenged’ is working as a verb, describing the action of something that is happening. In a similar way to past participles, because they come from a verb form, present participle adjectives have that extra link with the verb, making them an adjective which has some shared meaning with the base form verb. Let’s look at an irregular verb example:

Base verb form: draw

Present participle form: drawing

Present participle as adjective example : The drawing room was where he had his hedonistic parties.

Simple past tense form: drew

Simple past tense verb example: He drew whatever interested him.

Here the base form verb ‘draw’ has ‘ing’ added onto the end to become the present participle ‘drawing’. Note how both regular and irregular verbs all have ‘ing’ added on the end for the present participle. In the adjective example ‘The drawing room was where he had his hedonistic parties.’ the present participle ‘drawing’ is modifying the noun ‘room’ to tell us about a special kind of room. For comparison, in the sentence ‘He drew whatever interested him.’ the verb ‘drew’ is describing the action of drawing.

It’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the differences between present participles as adjectives and other types of adjectives. For example:

His challenging behaviour was becoming unbearable.

His unhappy dog was slumped by the front door.

Note how the present participle ‘challenging’ has that link to a verb (‘challenge’), but ‘unhappy’ doesn’t. This gives present participle adjectives an extra feeling of action.

Present participles can also work as predicate adjectives. An example of this is:

I am winning.

Here the present participle ‘winning’ is linking back to the subject ‘I’ to give the quality of a winning person, making it a predicate adjective. Compare this with the more common predicate adjectives:

I am winning.

I am happy.

Note how the predicate adjective ‘happy’ doesn’t have the link to an action which ‘winning’ has. ‘Winning’ has the link to the base form ‘win’, which makes it a different kind of adjective. An example which might make the link as an adjective clearer is:

The war is terrifying.

Here we have the present participle ‘terrifying’ as the predicate adjective modifying the noun phrase subject ‘the war’. The base verb is ‘terror’ giving it that extra action related quality, but, because it is an emotion, it feels more similar to the adjective ‘happy’ we saw earlier.

2.2.2 Present participles helping create the progressive and perfect progressive tenses

Present participles help to form the progressive and perfect progressive tenses along with other constructions. Let’s look at a summary of these:

Tense / Aspect name Construction Example
Past tenses    
Progressive past tense ‘was/were’ + present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) I was singing all night.
Perfect progressive past tense ‘had been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He had been running marathons for years before winning the gold medal.
Present tenses    
Progressive present tense different forms of ‘be’ (am/is/are) + present participle ending for a verb (‘ing’ ending) I am drinking.
Perfect progressive present tense ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) You have been forgetting her birthday for years.
Future tenses    
Progressive future tense ‘will be’ + present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) We will be smiling when the party starts.
Perfect progressive future tense ‘will have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending) He will have been studying computer science for 3 years in April.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the present tense.

Progressive present tense: different forms of ‘to be’ (‘am/is/are’) + present participle ending for a verb (‘ing’ ending)

Example: I am drinking.

Here we have ‘am’ + the present participle of ‘drink’ – which is ‘drinking’ – forming the progressive present tense. This is showing us that the drinking that is happening in the present is an ongoing activity. The present participle is also working as a predicate adjective here, linking back to the subject noun ‘I’ to add a quality to it.

Perfect progressive present tense: ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the verb (‘ing’ ending)

Example: You have been forgetting her birthday for years.

Here we have ‘have been’ + the present participle of ‘forget’ – which is ‘forgetting’ – giving us the perfect progressive present tense. Note this example has both the past participle ‘been’ and the present participle ‘forgetting’ working together.

One of the most difficult things about this is that ‘ing’ forms like ‘drinking’ can be a present participle in some circumstances and a gerund in others. Let’s take a detailed look at that next.

2.2.3 Distinguishing between present participles and gerunds

A common confusion arises when trying to distinguish between a gerund and a present participle. This is because they both take a base verb form and add ‘ing’ onto the end. We already looked at the method of pronoun replacement earlier. This is a great way to tell if it is a gerund or a present participle because gerunds are nouns, and pronouns replace nouns – so replacing a gerund with a pronoun will work, but it won’t work with a present participle. Let’s repeat that exercise, but also have some adjective replacements underneath. I should also add that present participles will often work as predicative adjectives, modifying the noun subject at the beginning of the sentence, by looping backwards. For example in:

He was singing.

the present participle ‘singing’ is a predicate adjective looping back to modify the subject ‘he’; it is adding that extra quality to the pronoun ‘he’.

In the following, note how replacing the present participle with a pronoun doesn’t work, but replacing it with an adjective is much more successful:

Progressive past tense: ‘was/were’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He was singing.’

Pronoun replacement: He was it. (not equivalent)

Adjective replacement: He was aggressive.

 

Perfect progressive past tense: ‘had been’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He had been singing.’

Pronoun replacement: He had been it. (not equivalent)

Adjective replacement: He had been lazy.

 

Progressive present tense: different forms of ‘be’ (‘am/is/are’) + present participle

e.g., ‘He is singing.’

Pronoun replacement: He is it. (not equivalent)

Adjective replacement: He is tall.

 

Progressive future tense: ‘will be’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He will be singing.’

Pronoun replacement: He will be it. (not equivalent)

Adjective replacement: He will be cruel.

 

Perfect progressive future tense: ‘will have been’ + present participle

e.g., ‘He will have been singing.’

Pronoun replacement: He will have been it. (not equivalent)

Adjective replacement: He will have been comfortable.

Note how the pronoun replacements don’t work, but it is easy to find an adjective replacement? Now compare that to some gerund examples:

Gerund: I love singing.

Pronoun replacement: I love it.

Adjective replacement: I love aggressive/lazy/tall/cruel/comfortable/beautiful. (doesn’t fit)

 

Gerund: Singing makes me happy.

Pronoun replacement: It makes me happy.

Adjective replacement: aggressive/lazy/tall/cruel/comfortable/beautiful makes me happy. (doesn’t fit)

 

Gerund: He enjoys singing more than anything else.

Pronoun replacement: He enjoys it more than anything else.

Adjective replacement: He enjoys aggressive/lazy/tall/cruel/comfortable/beautiful more than anything else. (doesn’t fit)

 

Gerund: Singing is his favourite activity.

Pronoun replacement: It is his favourite activity.

Adjective replacement: aggressive/lazy/tall/cruel/comfortable/beautiful is his favourite activity. (doesn’t fit)

Notice how the pronoun replacements work nicely, but the adjectives don’t seem to work?

We can also look at the difference in a more formal way. If it is a gerund, it will take on the form of a noun, naming some person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action; in contrast, if it is a present participle, it will work as an adjective, modifying a noun (or will form one of the perfect/perfect progressive tenses). Let’s look at some comparisons:

Present participle: The singing bird woke me up pleasantly.

Gerund: Singing is her favourite activity.

In the sentence:

The singing bird woke me up pleasantly.

we see the present participle ‘singing’ modifying the noun ‘bird’, making it an adjective. In comparison, in the sentence ‘Singing is her favourite activity’ the word ‘singing’ is a noun, naming the act, and is therefore a gerund. There are a number of ways we can approach these issues. The first is as was just done, by looking at the way the words interact with others and thinking of general definitions of the words. The other is similar, but involves also looking at the position and thinking about the subject, predicate, and object of the sentence. Let’s have a look at the sentences in this regard.

In ‘The singing bird woke me up pleasantly’ the subject is ‘the singing bird’ and the predicate is ‘woke me up pleasantly’. We know the subject is usually a noun or pronoun, and the verb and object are usually in the predicate. So, we can think of ‘the singing bird’ as a noun phrase. Then we have to ask what role ‘singing’ is playing in that noun phrase. We know it has the definite article ‘the’ behind it, which is an adjective. We also know the definite article is used before a noun. So we could start thinking that ‘singing’ is a noun. But, if we then isolate the phrase ‘The singing’ that doesn’t make sense, whereas ‘the bird’ does. If ‘the bird’ is a noun phrase, then what is ‘singing’ doing? Well it is sitting behind the noun ‘bird’ modifying it – a position adjectives are often seen in in relation to nouns. However, adjectives don’t always come before nouns, as we will see next.

In the second example:

Singing is her favourite activity.

the subject is ‘Singing’ and the predicate is ‘is her favourite activity’. This can seem a little strange because the subject is usually a noun like ‘David’, ‘The cat’ or ‘The car’, or a pronoun like ‘He’ or ‘Her’. However, in this case, a word which is formed from a verb is the subject, which is unusual. The big clue about it is that it is in the beginning, where we often see the subject. We can also ask how ‘singing’ is interacting with the other words. It is directly before the linking verb ‘is’ which links the subject and the predicate, also suggesting it is a noun. We can also ask if it would make sense as an adjective. Are there any nouns that it is modifying? The only other noun in the sentence is ‘activity’, which is being modified by the adjective ‘favourite’. If ‘singing’ was modifying ‘activity’ to give it a new property it would probably work with something like ‘singing activity’ or ‘activity singing’.

The best method is to analyse the sentence and figure out the function of the word in the sentence. However, seeing as his can be hard, here are a summary of the tricks for finding out if it is a gerund or a present participle:

If you remember back to earlier on when we discussed this, we ended up concluding that to figure out if it is a gerund we: 

1) Use the pronoun replacement method for the gerund, or whole gerund phrase.

2) Figure out what part of the sentence it is, and see if that is one of the usual functions of a noun.

We can then add to this that if we want to check for a present participle we

1) Use a pronoun replacement: this shouldn’t work.

2) Use an adjective replacement: this works if it is an adjective.

3) See if it is in the any of the typical adjective positions (e.g, before a noun, appositive to a noun, or in predicate adjective position)

4) See if it fits any of the progressive and perfect progressive tense constructions.

3) Infinitives

Infinitives are another type of non finite verb which are formed by:

to + the base form of the verb (e.g., ‘to write’, ‘to jump’, ‘to think’)

As they are non-finite verbs they cannot be inflected for person, number, tense or mood.

Infinitives can work as nouns, adjectives or adverbs; let’s take a look at examples of each next.

3.1 Infinitives as nouns

Sometimes infinitives as nouns can come at the beginning of sentences, as a subject. For example:

To forget can be very hard.

Here, the subject is the infinitive ‘to forget’, the verb phrase is ‘can be’ – made up of the modal auxiliary verb ‘can’, and the main verb ‘be’ – and we end with the predicate adjective phrase ‘very hard’ – made up of the adverb ‘very’ and the adjective ‘hard’, which it is modifying.

We know it is a noun because it is the subject. In a more intuitive way we can recognise it as a noun because it is naming the concept of forgetting. Another way we can test if it is a noun is to try and replace it with a gerund, or a pronoun:

Forgetting can be very hard.’ (replaced ‘to forget’ with the gerund ‘forgetting’)

It can be very hard.’ (replaced ‘to forget’ with the pronoun ‘it’)

Note how both of these work.

An example of an infinitive working as a noun by being a direct object of the verb is:

Jane hates to swim.

In this case, the subject is ‘Jane’, the verb is ‘hates’ and the direct object is the infinitive ‘to swim’. We know it is a noun because it is the direct object. Again, on a more intuitive note, we know it is a noun because it is naming the concept of swimming. Let’s examine that idea though. Is it really naming the concept of swimming? Let’s compare this with the present tense verb ‘swims’.

Jane hates to swim.

Jane swims regularly.

See the difference? In the second sentence we are describing the subject ‘Jane’ doing the action of swimming. In contrast, in the first sentence, the infinitive ‘to swim’ is trying to convey the idea of swimming, just like saying something like ‘Jane hates chess’. Let’s try replacing with a gerund and a pronoun again:

Jane hates to swim.

Jane hates swimming.

Jane hates it.

See how that works nicely? You could even throw in other nouns like:

Jane hates chess.

Jane hates football.

Now let’s try doing the same thing with the verb version:

Jane swims regularly.

Jane swimming regularly. (incorrect)

Jane it regularly. (incorrect)

This doesn’t work at all. Moreover, throwing noun substitutes in also doesn’t work:

Jane chess regularly. (incorrect)

Jane football regularly. (incorrect)

An example of an infinitive as a predicate noun, or subject complement, is:

Her plan is to cheat.

Here we have the subject ‘her plan’ + the linking verb ‘is’ + the infinitive ‘to cheat’. The infinitive is working as a predicate noun, or subject complement, linking back to ‘her plan’ to rename it. Again, we can replace it with a gerund and a pronoun:

Her plan is cheating.

Her plan is it.

Actually, ‘it’ sounds a little weird here as a pronoun replacement. Can you think of a better pronoun to replace ‘cheating’? I suppose we could use:

Her plan is this.

Her plan is that.

3.2 Infinitives as adjectives

Infinitives can also sometimes be adjectives. For example:

Ben was always looking for more books to read.

Here, the infinitive ‘to read’ is modifying the noun ‘books’ by telling us the purpose of the books is ‘to read’. It isn’t describing an action of a book being read, rather adding an element to the noun ‘books’

Infinitives can also be used as adjectives in different positions, as in:

He likes space to roam and peaceful surroundings.

Here, the infinitive ‘to roam’ is modifying the noun ‘space’ by telling us the space is for roaming around in. It isn’t describing the action of someone roaming, rather adding an element to the noun ‘space’.

3.3 Infinitives as adverbs

Infinitives can also be adverbs. For example:

Sheila left to mourn

Here the infinitive ‘to mourn’ is modifying the verb ‘left’ by telling us about the purpose of the leaving. It is very easy to get these mixed up with infinitives working as nouns. One way of preventing this it to try the same trick of putting in a gerund, or pronoun, in place of the infinitive as in:

Sheila left to mourn.

Sheila left mourning.

Sheila left it.

This doesn’t work as well. The sentence:

Sheila left mourning.

isn’t that far away from ‘Sheila left to mourn’ but there are differences. ‘Sheila left to mourn’ tells us the reason for her leaving, whereas ‘Sheila left mourning’ just tells us she is mourning while leaving. It becomes much clearer when we look at the pronoun replacement, as in:

Sheila left it.

This doesn’t represent ‘to mourn’ well either, and is a warning sign that ‘to mourn’ is not working as a noun in this sentence.

Another example is:

The world stopped to listen.

Here, the infinitive ‘to listen’ is modifying the verb ‘stopped’ by telling us the purpose of the world stopping. Again, if we try to put in a gerund or pronoun we will see it doesn’t work:

The world stopped to listen.

The world stopped listening.

The world stopped it.

The sentence:

The world stopped listening.

means the exact opposite of the original sentence:

The world stopped to listen.

Again, the pronoun replacement sentence:

The world stopped it.

doesn’t work either. Also, the sentence ‘The world stopped to listen‘ is talking about the action of listening, and so is extending the action of the verb ‘stopped’, whereas the sentence ‘The world stopped listening‘ is naming the concept of listening.

We could also think about the sentences in regards to subjects and objects. In ‘the world stopped to listen’ the subject is ‘The world’, but there isn’t an object in the sense we are used to: there isn’t something having something done to it by the subject. We have seen earlier that when looking for objects we find the subject and verb then ask ‘whom?’ or ‘what?’ after. If we do that with the first sentence we get ‘The world stopped what?’ The answer is ‘to listen’. But that isn’t something they stopped doing; it is something they stopped to do. However, with the sentence ‘The world stopped listening’, we get ‘The world stopped what?’ and the answer ‘listening’. ‘Listening’ is perhaps a little closer to the traditional idea of an object; in other words, ‘listening’ is having something done to it by the world (being stopped). Can we say the same thing about the infinitive sentence? Saying ‘To listen’ is having something done to it by the world (being stopped) doesn’t make quite as much sense. This is all very contentious though, so you might disagree. Whatever the case, it is an interesting exercise in thinking about the function of infinitives.

Adverbs can also modify adjectives, so let’s look at an an example of an infinitive working as an adverb by modifying an adjective:

His books are fascinating to read.

Here we have the infinitive ‘to read’ working as an adverb by modifying the present participle predicate adjective ‘fascinating’ to produce the present participle predicate adjective phrase ‘fascinating to read’. This phrase is then modifying the subject noun phrase ‘his books’ via the linking verb ‘are’.

Because ‘to’ is a preposition, it is worth comparing examples where ‘to’ is used as a preposition and examples where it is used in an infinitive, to help differentiate the two. Let’s look at some examples:

Preposition: The road to the beach is busy.

Infinitive: John likes to drive.

Prepositions, such as ‘to’, link two words together, and usually come before a noun, or pronoun. In the example:

The road to the beach is busy.

The preposition ‘to’ is linking the noun phrase ‘the road’ with the noun phrase ‘the beach’. If we then look at the infinitive example:

John likes to drive.

The infinitive ‘to drive’ is acting as a noun, naming the concept of driving, rather than linking words, or phrases, together, as with the prepositions. I would recommend reviewing the preposition section if this difference is very unclear.

3.4 Split infinitives

An infinitive is said to be split when a word is put in between the ‘to’ and the verb. For example:

To drive.

To slowly drive.

Here the adverb ‘slowly’ is modifying the verb ‘drive’ and splitting up the infinitive. Is it wrong to do this? Some people will say it should never be done, while most sources say that it is not a strict rule, but just something to think about when writing. In formal writing, splitting infinitives is sometimes criticised, so it is important to know what it means, in case you are in a situation where you are forbidden from using it. Let’s look at some examples and have a think about whether to split, or not to split:

The ambassador stopped to respectfully listen.

The sentence ‘The ambassador stopped to respectfully listen’ has the adverb ‘respectfully’ in the middle of the infinitive ‘to listen’ causing a split infinitive. There is something a little unclear about this. Is the ambassador listening in a respectful way? Or did he/she stop to listen out of respect? Can you think of a better way to say this sentence? How about:

The ambassador stopped to listen, respectfully.

Here we have got rid of the split infinitive by moving the adverb to the right. This may be a little better, but it still feels a bit unclear. Perhaps a better way of writing it would be:

Out of respect, the ambassador stopped to listen.

That seems a more clear sentence. Choosing whether to use a split infinitive or not largely comes down to analysing the rhythm and meaning of the sentence and making a decision. Let’s look at some more:

He tried very hard to genuinely forgive her.

Here the adverb ‘genuinely’ is splitting the infinitive ‘to forgive’. This is an example where split infinitives can work quite well because the word in the middle is being emphasised. Compare it to:

He tried very hard to forgive her genuinely.

I think the sentence ‘He tried very hard to genuinely forgive’ is better because the emphasised ‘genuinely’ in the middle helps to make the point that it wasn’t just a superficial forgiveness he tried, but a genuine, deep, emotional one. In the sentence ‘He tried very hard to forgive genuinely’ that emphasis is lost and it feels a little weaker, at least to my ears. Let’s look at another:

He likes space to freely roam.

Here the adverb ‘freely’ is splitting the infinitive ‘to roam’. Perhaps the use of ‘freely’ here is a little redundant, as ‘roam’ does suggest moving around ‘freely’. In situations like this there is always the option of getting rid of the adverb, and just having:

He likes space to roam.

However, we could also change it to:

He likes space to roam freely.

Now the infinitive is no longer split. Which sentence do you prefer? I think probably the latter ‘He likes space to roam freely’ is a little better because the only real use of ‘freely’ here is as an adverb modifying the infinitive ‘to roam’, which itself is working like an adjective modifying the noun ‘space’. So I feel it sounds better introducing the idea of roaming first, then adding that extra word ‘freely’ to say ‘roam uninterrupted’; it is as though he tries to roam around but keeps getting stopped.

There are certain circumstances where correcting split infinitives means a big rearrangement of the sentence. This tends to be when relating to numbers as in:

They need to more than double the amount of houses being built to meet demand.

Here the phrase ‘more than’ needs to go into this position to make the point. Trying to move it around could lead to incorrect sentences such as:

They need to double more than the amount of houses being built to meet demand.

They need more than to double the amount of houses being built to meet demand.

The first sentence above is completely wrong, while the second is very awkward and unclear. Can you think of any other way to rewrite this sentence? It could be completely rearranged to this:

If demand is going to be met, they will need to build more than double the amount of houses they are currently building.

Again, this is your choice. That complete reconstruction of the sentence uses up a lot more words, and it is the eternal problem of the writer to cut back on words to preventing using too many. You should be warned, however, that, especially in formal writing, some people are very critical of split infinitives. The safest bet is probably to avoid them in any sort of formal writing, and to have a little extra care in less formal writing.

4) Questions

1) Explain gerunds.

2) Explain past participles.

3) Explain present participles.

4) How can you tell the difference between a present participle and a gerund?

5) Explain infinitives.

We have covered all the major word classes now. Next up we will look at phrases in more detail.

NEXT: 28) Phrases in detail

Posted in English Grammar