Gerund vs. Present Participle

The gerund and the present participle appear identical: both are formed by adding -ing to a verb (e.g., swimming, dancing, dreaming). The difference lies in how they function in a sentence. While a gerund acts as a noun, the present participle helps form verb tenses, acts as an adjective, and appears in participle clauses.

  • Gerund: Laughing relaxes the mind. (acting as a noun)
  • Present participle: She was laughing at herself when I first met her. (forming tense)
  • Present participle: A picture of a laughing child won the prize. (acting as an adjective)
  • Present participle: She shook her head, laughing at herself. (in participle clause)

The distinction, although academic, is of interest because it helps parse a sentence.

Gerund as noun

A gerund (verb + -ing) acts as a noun. It names something (e.g., an activity). It can perform all the same functions as a noun in a sentence: act as the subject, object, and subject complement.

  • Swimming is her favorite form of exercise. (subject)
  • She likes collecting stamps. (object of verb)
  • I am tired of wanting more from life. (object of preposition)
  • Her favorite pastime is reading. (subject complement)

Note how the -ing words above are not used as verbs but as nouns— as names of activities, hobbies, pastimes, or interests.


Everything a noun can do, a gerund can as well, while still conveying the idea of a verb. For more discussion and examples, see this article on the characteristics of a gerund.

Present participle in verb tenses

The present participle form of a verb helps form tenses by denoting the progressive aspect (verb + -ing). The following examples show how it is different from a gerund, not behaving as a noun at all but as a verb, referring to an action, occurrence, or state of being.

  • She is flying to Almaty tomorrow.
    present progressive tense
  • We were having dinner when the bell rang.
    past progressive tense

Present participle as adjective

Participle forms of verbs can describe nouns, thus acting as adjectives.

  • Did you watch that video of a talking cat?
    The present participle talking acts as an adjective by describing the noun cat.
  • It’s hard to sit on a wobbling chair.
  • This is no laughing matter.

Present participle in participle clause

Participle clauses help shorten sentences, saying the same thing as a full-fledged subordinate clause but in fewer words. Participle forms of a verb appear in such clauses, which are more common in writing than in speech.

  • Having eaten already, we decided to stay in.
    Shortens “Since we had eaten already, we decided to stay in.”
  • The usher ignored us, looking down instead into his phone.
  • She checked everyone’s vitals, asking whether they felt all right.

Note how participle clauses are nonfinite: they do not indicate tense, which is shown by the main clause.

  • He sidled along the corridor, moving in a strange crab-like manner.
    The main clause indicates the past tense (sidled), while the participle clause simply shows the progressive aspect (moving).

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a gerund?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these contains a present participle?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which contains an adjective?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which contains a participle clause?
Choose from these answers
All done!