Save the Gerund!

A while back I sprang valiantly (adverb) to the defence of adverbs. Today I have a new cause – the Gerund. This magnificent creature is being hunted to extinction by American writing school proprietors for its mythical sedative and repellant qualities.


OK, I’d forgotten since I was taught it around the age of 15 what a gerund was. In English it’s a verb form of a word with an -ing ending, but used as a noun – for example, “they don’t believe in PRAYING”. Apparently this is another shock, horror thing for some American writing schools and for writers schooled thus and unable to think beyond the current orthodoxy.


But what’s wrong with the thing? Here are some examples of gerunds from the Wikipedia article on them:


  • I like swimming. (direct object)
  • Swimming is fun. (subject)

Gerund clauses:

  • She is considering having a holiday.
  • Do you feel like going out?
  • I can’t help falling in love with you.
  • I can’t stand not seeing you.

Let’s try to write the gerunds out without losing the meaning:

I like to swim

To swim is fun (or: swims are fun)

She’s considering a holiday (but that could mean she’s decided to have a holiday but is selecting an option)



I’m also stuck trying to find alternatives to the next two.


Gerunds exist in a very wide range of unrelated languages, from Romanian to Japanese, so the need for them must be pretty pressing.


So what was wrong with the gerunds – and why is the stilted and contrary to common usage “I like to swim” to be preferred? Search me. Maybe they’re getting confused with the other uses of -ing. I was told a while back that some editors would object to the use of the gerund in “he was breathing heavily” – but that isn’t a gerund at all. One of the main characteristics of English which distinguishes it from most other languages is that it has two forms of the present tense (and equivalents for the past and future).  One, as in “He’s looking at you” or “the water is receding”, describes an action over a period. The other, as in “She locks her car door” describes a habit or a state (“They fear death”; the water recedes when there’s no rain”) or an immediate action (“It hurt me”; “I think”). If you get rid of all these -ing words, you remove one of the main characteristics of the language and one that allows shades of meaning.


Where do these odd orthodoxies come from and why do people take them seriously?


Back to poetry next time!

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  1. « Going out »…

    See, I use French quotation marks !

    The reason for rejecting “going out” (English quotation marks !) might be (excuse my English since I am a French Canadian) because the expression does not say much.

    Going out where ; to do what ? Are you going outside for a walk or are you taking your car to go to a night club ? Are you goint out on the porch ?

    « Going out » (back to French quotation marks !), goes empty !?!

    • GinTonHic: That’s a specific point and not the reasoning of editors and trainers who simply dislike gerunds on principle.

      However, on the specific point, I answer: it says as much as it needs to. It’s vagueness is useful. No, in common usage it would not mean going out on your porch; nor does it normally mean going out for a work reason. If a police officer asked another, “Are you going out tonight?” and got the answer “Yes, in the squad car – I’m on night shift” this would be a joke. In most circumstances – readily recognised by most people – it means going away from where you live for a day or a night’s social entertainment. So in such a conversation it excludes: work; other practical purposes such as going to a shop for milk; wandering alone looking at the stars; or leaving for a holiday. It doesn’t specify the nature of the entertainment any more than the word “entertainment” does, but the answer should establish whether the person is basically staying home that night, is busy on some practical matter or is seeking an evening’s entertainment. If the answer to the question is yes, the answerer might well add the information on what he or she is planning; if not, the questioner might ask.

      In pactice it might well be the prelude to “asking someone out”. Note this term is also vague. You can be asked out to the theatre, a pub, a Macdonald’s, even a walk by the river. That doesn’t make a query like “Have you asked her out yet?” meaningless.

  2. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

     /  July 4, 2012

    being an American, I think I will keep silent

    • Not all Americans believe in “stripped down” writing and are trying to remove subtleties from the language!

  3. The gerund used to frighten me as much as the subjunctive in Latin, but now you’ve explained it so beautifully I love the gerund!
    I must have missed the class when we ‘did’ the gerund.

    • I once went with a few other sixth-formers on a birdwatching trip to the Camargue led by two teachers both of whom taught French (though one was first and foremost a teacher of Russian). During the road journeys, they ran a sort of competition between the two of them to say things in French involving use of the subjunctive. I well remember the cries of triumph: “SUBJONCTIF!” Or even greater triumph: “SUBJONCTIF IMPARFAIT!”

      The explanation of the gerund is mostly Wikipedia’s. I thought it was very clear.

  1. Considering A Sometimes You Feel Like

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