Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Verbals: How to Identify Gerunds

Examples of gerund phrases used as a subject, a subject complement, and a direct object.
Gerunds Behave Like Nouns and Verbs

Verbals are words that look like verbs, but they have functions and abilities beyond mere "verbishness."  

Instead of behaving like plain 'ol verbs, they behave like nouns, adjectives, or adverbs within the context of a sentence while still maintaining the ability to pass along the actions of their "verbish" natures.

Gerunds are only one type of verbal. The others kinds of verbals are participles and infinitives.

So how can you tell gerunds apart from participles and infinitives?

Which is Which? Three Kinds of Verbals

Infinitives, Participles, Gerunds

Infinitives are verbs that are preceded by the word "to," as in "to bake," "to swim," or "to run." However, these verbals are not used to show action or a state of being in a sentence like a verb is used. Instead, they are used as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.  Infinitives can take on verbal complements, which are nouns that follow the verbal and receive the action of the verbal, as in "to bake a cake,"  or "to run a marathon."  It is easy to tell infinitives from gerunds because gerunds are not preceded by the word "to."

Participles look like "ed" or "ing" verbs, but they are used in sentences as adjectives.  Although participles and gerunds may both end in "ing," you can tell a gerund from a participle because gerunds are not used as either adjectives or adverbs.  "Running is a healthy habit" uses "Running" as a subject, a gerund, while "Turn off the running water" uses "running" to describe water, a participle.

Gerunds, like present participles, end in "ing."  In sentences, gerunds are used as nouns.  A gerund can be used in a sentence in any way a noun can be used: as a complement, object, or subject.  Like a verb, gerunds can take on verbal complements.

Identifying Gerunds

Gerunds as Subjects

It is important to be able to identify gerunds within sentences.  This can help writers avoid one of the most common grammatical errors, subject-verb agreement errors.  For example, take a look at the following two sentences.  Can you tell which sentence is grammatically correct and which sentence is not grammatically correct?

  • Riding her horses is her favorite pastime.
  • Growing gigantic sunflowers are her business.

If you said the first sentence is correct and second sentence is incorrect, well done!

In the example sentences above, the first sentence is written correctly.  The second sentence, however, contains a subject-verb agreement error.

The subject of the second sentence is the gerund, "Growing," which does not agree with the verb, "are."  Although "sunflowers" is the noun that appears just before the verb, "sunflowers" is not the subject of the sentence (it's actually the verbal complement).  "Sunflowers" are not her business; "growing sunflowers" is her business.

Gerunds as Subject Complements

Gerunds can also be used as subject complements in sentences.  For example, instead of saying "Riding her horses is her favorite pastime," we could swap the subject and complement and say, "Her favorite pastime is riding her horses."  Although our understanding of her feelings about riding her horses remains the same, the gerund as subject becomes the gerund as subject complement.  Why would you ever want to swap a subject for a complement?  Writers should always place the most important words in the sentence as the subject of the sentence for greater emphasis and more clarity.

Please note that using an "ing" gerund as a subject complement is very different from using an "ing" verb as an action or state of being.  In the sentence "She is riding her horses," "is riding" is the progressive tense of the verb  "ride," and it shows action.  It is not a gerund.

Gerunds as Objects

Last, but not least, gerunds can be used as objects within sentences.  Instead of writing, "Riding her horses is her favorite pastime," we can write "She loves riding her horses."  Replacing the linking verb "is," with the action verb "loves," changes (like magic!) "riding" from a subject complement to a direct object.  But why do you need to know how to do that? Because this "magical" transformation helps writers create more effective, more strongly worded and specific, sentences.

Another way a gerund can be used as an object is as the object of a preposition.  If you've ever gone horseback riding, you know that at times it can be very exhausting.  We could say, "She was very tired after riding her horses."  In this example, "after" is the preposition and "riding" is the object of the preposition.  "Horses" is the verbal complement.


When using gerunds in sentences, it is necessary to be able to identify the gerund's use or function within the sentence.  This ability to identify gerunds can help a writer maintain subject-verb agreement and can help writers generate more effective, more strongly worded, and more specific sentences.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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