The Mighty Gerund: A Verb Form with Superpowers

A gerund is a verb form ending in -ing that acts as a noun. You can form a gerund from any verb by adding -ing to it: swimming (swim + -ing), running, singing, dreaming, dancing, thinking, talking.

A verb as we know describes an action, an occurrence, or a state of being, while a noun is the name given to something—for example, a hobby. We use gerunds to speak of hobbies, interests, behaviors, and activities.

  • Cycling is a great form of exercise.
  • Maya likes reading before bed.
  • She spends her weekends photographing old motels.
  • Lulu loves singing in the shower.

Gerunds are versatile words that exhibit both noun- and verb-like qualities: everything a noun can do, a gerund can as well, all while being a verb form.

How are gerunds used?

A gerund can be the subject of a sentence, thus functioning as a noun. (A subject is whom or what the sentence is about.)

  • Swimming gives all your main muscle groups a good workout.
    The gerund “swimming” is the subject.

The subject can also be a gerund phrase (a gerund with other words that describe the action or state expressed by the gerund).

  • Running from tigers is hard to do on bad ankles.
    The gerund phrase “running from tigers” is the subject.
  • Watching TV is all she can do after a long day at work.

A gerund or gerund phrase can also simply describe the subject, thus acting as a subject complement.

  • Her favorite form of exercise is swimming.
    The gerund swimming describes the subject (tells you what her favorite form of exercise is).
  • Seeing is believing.
  • His new nocturnal pastime is baking chicken cupcakes for dogs.

And like a noun, a gerund (or gerund phrase) can also be the object of a verb.

  • Rita enjoys swimming in the ocean.
    verb = enjoys; object = swimming
  • Maya likes watching TV at the end of the day.
  • Lulu hates running in the rain.

A gerund can even be the object of a preposition (words like of, on, at, in, about), again acting as a noun.

  • What matters is a desire for learning.
    preposition = for; object = learning
  • Rita dreams of swimming to Fiji.
  • Maya is writing a book on traveling the world by bus.

Adjectives with gerunds

Adjectives can be used to describe gerunds, just like they describe nouns.

  • I have never heard such beautiful singing.
    The adjective beautiful describes the gerund singing.
  • We appreciated his careful driving.
  • Tumkin’s artistic rendering of a simple logo has transformed our website.
  • This book is about the ghastly haunting of a local library by ghosts of unpublished writers.
  • Farley’s tuneless humming was getting on everybody’s nerves.

Adverbs with gerunds

A gerund, after all a verb form, retains some of its verb-like qualities. Unlike a noun, a gerund can be modified by adverbs. A regular noun is described using an adjective (a happy man) rather than an adverb (a happily man). But gerunds can take adverbs (sadly, madly, loudly, almost, never), just like verbs.

  • Driving carefully will save you.
  • Those were the days when writing neatly was valued above all else.
  • Willingly submitting to an investigation can only help your case.
  • I would suggest quickly selling your house now that you have found a buyer.
  • Never being proved wrong doesn’t mean you’re right.

Gerunds in compound nouns

Interestingly, gerunds can form compound nouns (two or more words making up a single noun), an ability that further underscores their “nounishness.”

  • When Anita discovered she was pregnant, she bought herself seventeen books on child-rearing.
    The noun child combines with the gerund rearing to form a compound noun.
  • Doesn’t Poco’s argument sound like so much hair-splitting?
  • Farley, your play-acting isn’t fooling anyone!
  • Beekeeping can be a rewarding hobby—for you and for the bees.
  • A successful business requires good bookkeeping.

Gerunds in compound verbs

Gerunds, which by now we know have superpowers, can even give birth to compound verbs.

  • Nesbit loves to window-shop on his way to work.
    Window plus the gerund shopping made window-shopping. Through usage, this then turned into the compound verb window-shop.
  • I have to babysit my niece this evening.
    from baby + sitting
  • Tumkin finds it reassuring that he is being headhunted by three companies at once.
    from head + hunting

Gerunds vs. -ing nouns

Not all nouns that end in -ing are gerunds—only those that are verb forms and retain their verb-like qualities. Only one of the following sentences has a gerund.

  • Noun: The building I live in is a hundred years old.
  • Gerund: Building the bridge cost numerous lives.

In the first example, building is simply a noun that has no verbal qualities—no action is being hinted at. In the second sentence, the verb build combines with ‑ing to give us a gerund. Here are more such words.

  • Noun: Farley bought a hideous painting at the auction yesterday.
    Gerund: Painting for a living doesn’t always pay.
  • Noun: Are you going to hang a stocking for Santa tonight?
    Gerund: One of the tasks Rita must complete today is stocking the shelves.
  • Noun: You don’t have to hide your feelings.
    Gerund: Feeling blue on Monday is par for the course.

Gerund vs. present participle

The form of a gerund is the same as that of the present participle of any verb: verb + -ing. Although the gerund and present participle of a verb look identical, they function differently in sentences. A gerund functions as a noun, while the present participle serves as the progressive form of a verb and helps form verb tenses.

  • Gerund: Jogging hurts my ankles.
    Present participle: She was jogging in the park when I ran into her.
    Present participle: She had been jogging for two hours when her feet started to hurt.
  • Gerund: Rita likes singing in the shower.
    Present participle: She was singing in the shower when the phone rang.

The participle can also act as an adjective.

  • Present participle: Have you ever met a talking cat?
    The participle talking describes the noun cat, thus acting as an adjective.

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a gerund?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these contains a gerund?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these has a gerund as the subject?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these contains a gerund phrase as the object of a verb?
Choose from these answers
All done!