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,, and .
- 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(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
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
help shorten sentences, saying the same thing as a full-fledged 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: 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).