Sunday, May 11, 2008

Being and Not Being a Gerund

A cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine shows a Buddhist monk leading a yoga class with several middle-aged men and women. One woman has her hand raised and is asking the instructor, “You say that life is suffering, but isn’t it also complaining?”

Agreeing or disagreeing with the question is not the point here; rather, today’s subject is our friend, “the gerund,” which is a type of noun formed from a verb and which ends in “ing.” Suffering and complaining, in the sentence above, are gerunds, each one serving as a complement to “life.”

The inspiration for this topic is a letter from Language Lady reader Danny White, whose enquiring mind had him recently pondering gerunds and non-gerunds:

Hi Louise,

Here's one for you: What's the proper term for a non-gerund? That is, when you're trying to distinguish between a verb in the gerund form and a verb in the non-gerund form, what do you call the latter?
A person who's not a Jew is a gentile. Food that isn't kosher is traif. A verb that's not a gerund is ... what?
This comes up in the context of my discussion of "as well as." If you view "as well as" as a preposition (examples to follow), then the verb that follows should be a gerund. But if you view "as well as" as a conjunction, then the verb that follows should be a ... what? Non-gerund? "Regular" verb?
Example:
• "Upon winning office, a member of the House of Representatives will campaign for the next two years, as well as drinking like a fish and hustling underage girls." (Here, "as well as" is treated like a preposition, with the verbs that follow being put in the gerund form.)
• "Upon winning office, a member of the House of Representatives will campaign for the next two years, as well as drink like a fish and hustle underage girls." (Here, "as well as" is treated like a conjunction, with the verbs that follow being put in the ... what form?)
See the question? Nobody in the world but a nerd like me would ever care about the answer, but I thought maybe someone like you would know the answer (even if you don't care about it).

How could Language Lady NOT care about this?! It’s the air I breathe, my lifeblood, and other clich├ęs, parts of speech, and grammar terms that get me out of bed in the morning.

Before answering however, I thought a little trip down Gerund Lane might be useful for readers whose knowledge of such forms and functions may be a little rusty.

The gerund is one of a little family of grammatical things called “verbals,” or parts of speech formed from verbs. Like verbs, these words can express action, abstract action, or a state of being: Action verbs: run, jump, fall, etc.; Abstract verbs: have, love, feel, think, suffer, complain. Being verb: (you guessed it): be.

There are three members of the Verbal family, and the other two are the “infinitive” and the “participle.” The infinitive is the base part of a verb preceded by “to,” as in, “to suffer” and “to complain,” or, as Macbeth once asked, “to be, or not to be.” The participle is an adjective formed from a verb that ends in either “ing,” as in “crying” babies, or in “ed,” as in, “I'm shocked, shocked (to find that gambling is going on in here!” -- Capt. Renault, “Casablanca”). The participle is also the “ing” or “ed” (or irregular ending) of verbs that take helping verbs, as in
“I am writing” and “I have written;” or “talking/talked,” “jumping/jumped,” “emailing/emailed,” etc.



(For further insight into Verbals, I recommend the Owl writing and grammar site from Purdue University: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/02/)

Now then, let’s look again Danny’s question, “..when you're trying to distinguish between a verb in the gerund form and a verb in the non-gerund form, what do you call the latter?”

I’ll pause here to let you answer.

(Pause)

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, it’s a Participle!

(Unpause) (Danny’s letter continued:)

This comes up in the context of my discussion of "as well as." If you view "as well as" as a preposition (examples to follow), then the verb that follows should be a gerund.


(Pause again.)

Danny brings up a really cool point -- one that most native speakers of English probably just take for granted: that when we have phrases like “thank you for” or “looking forward to” or “he broke his arm by,” we always follow them with a gerund when expressing some kind of action. That is, “thank you for inviting me;” “looking forward to seeing you;” and “he broke his arm by falling out of a tree.” In each case, the gerund follows a preposition (words like in, on, at, by, from, to, on, through etc.)

Danny’s confusion is thinking that “as well as” is a prepositional phrase. Prepositions are, as the term implies, little words that show a “position” of something or someone (in the dark, through the forest, etc.) “As” is an adverb; and depending on the context, “as well as” is either an adverbial phrase (“He shoots pool as well as his mother does.”) or a type of conjunction, something that joins other words or phrases (like “and,” “but,” “or,” etc. As in, “We went shopping all day as well as dancing all night.”)

(Unpause – back to Danny):

Example:
• "Upon winning office, a member of the House of Representatives will campaign for the next two years, as well as drinking like a fish and hustling underage girls." (Here, "as well as" is treated like a preposition, with the verbs that follow being put in the gerund form.)
Thinking that “as well as” was a prepositional phrase forced Danny to turn “drink” and “hustle” into “drinking” and “hustling,” resulting in a type of grammatical faux pas known as “non-parallel structure.” Let’s break the sentence down into basic parts: the subject of the sentence is “member;” and what does that House member do? He “will campaign.” And what ELSE?
By treating “as well as” as a conjunction, which it is, and which Danny does in his second sentence, he arrives at the correct answer and good parallel structure: in its most basic, sentence-diagrammable form, the House member will campaign (and also) drink and hustle. Just as Danny says below:
But if you view "as well as" as a conjunction …
• "Upon winning office, a member of the House of Representatives will campaign for the next two years, as well as drink like a fish and hustle underage girls …"

• … then you get the perfect, parallel-structured and grammatically correct sentence.

Danny’s final question is:
• (Here – referring to the second example sentence -- "as well as" is treated like a conjunction, with the verbs that follow being put in the ... what form?)
Anyone like to try? (I mentioned this form briefly a little earlier.) When you have a helping, or auxiliary, verb – in this case, “will” (as in “will campaign”), the verb that follows is the non-conjugated base or stem form. And since “drink” and “hustle” are as much a main verb as “campaign,” they take the base form too.
Thanks for writing, Danny – and most of all, thanks for (gerund, please): caring!

3 comments:

hikity-2001 said...

Thanks for the brilliant explanation :-)which I've just found while searching for gerund after *as well as*.
May I, however, correct you with regard to my obsession which is literature? It is Hamlet not Macbeth, who asks "to be or not to be"...
wbw
Hikity

Zidane said...

I have a slightly different construction that is puzzling me. My colleague, who is not a native English speaker, wrote "the client handles SMS as well as retrieves the SMS history". I think it should be "the client handles SMS as well as *retrieving* the SMS history". But after reading your article, I am not sure I am right.

Shahzaib Khan said...

This is really declarative and well explained lesson. Thanks for sharing such a nice post. Do you have a post for Difference Between Gerund and Infinitive. It will be a great help.