May 24, 2012 | Review Period

Participles Versus Gerunds

Grammatical terms are not as fixed as is convenient for my brain.

In my grammar travels in English, I have often noticed the terms “present participle” and “gerund” being used interchangeably.

The word “walking” can be either a participle or a gerund, depending on how it is employed in a sentence. I don’t ever use those terms interchangeably myself, and I believe, to the best of my knowledge—though English is kind of a freak show—that they are in our language quite consistently two distinct grammatical categories.

An English gerund is an -ing verb form acting as a noun. A participle is an -ing verb form acting as, well, a verb in a progressive tense, to show you are in the middle of something. Or to show a similar concept adjectivally.

Here are some examples to illustrate:

Gerund: Walking is good for your health. 

Present participle (as part of present progressive): John is walking to work today to get some exercise.

Present participle (as adjective): The walking man kicked his colleague’s tire.

Present participle (as part of past progressive): The colleague was running towards his car when the walking man kicked it.

Gerund: I like studying languages.

While we are on the subject of participles, here’s a past participle in case anyone is wondering: “walked,” as in “I have walked to school every day this week.”

On Gerunds and Other Fun Subjects

On Gerunds and Other Fun Subjects

Anyway, these musings arose anew because I read in my Complete Spanish Grammar by Gilda Nissenberg the following: “The progressive tenses are formed with the present participle (or gerundio in Spanish).” The word gerundio surprised me, since I would have expected it to correspond to the word “gerund” in English.

Wondering whether gerundio is the legitimate translation of “present participle” in English and whether this accounts for some of the confusion between the two categories grammatically, I searched online and found the following explanation from writer Gerald Erichsen.

Traditionally, “gerund” is the term used to refer to a certain Latin verb form that could function as a noun. Nowadays, the term generally is used to refer to the present participle in English and the verbal present participle of Spanish. These are the verb forms that end in “-ing” in English and -ando or -iendo in Spanish. In both languages, the gerund is used to form the progressive or continuous tenses. Note that while the English gerund can be and frequently is used as a noun, the Spanish gerund does not function as a noun.

Okay. That is helpful with respect to Spanish, though I still wouldn’t call the present participle in English a gerund, and I know I am not alone in that. But yes, in Spanish you typically use the infinitive for a noun in places where you would use an -ing form in English. You would say, Aprender un idioma es difĂ­cil. (Right?) In English you would say, “Learning a language is difficult.”

(Actually, I guess also in Italian, French, and German you would use the infinitive in that sentence.)

For now I stand by the idea that it is confusing to use “gerund” and “present participle” interchangeably in English. I see why it happens, but it doesn’t seem justified.

However, I did also find a Wikipedia entry on “gerund” suggesting that this is a much more malleable term from one tongue to the next than I was aware.

The entry lists its meaning for various languages, and there is considerable variety. 

To be candid, I can’t follow all the explanations. But the English explanation corresponds to my own use of the term, and the description for gerundio in Spanish maybe seems to correspond generally with the one from my Nissenberg grammar book, cited above, that launched this inquiry to begin with.

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