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)
- 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)
Do you feel like….HERE I’M REALLY STUMPED. I CAN’T THINK OF ANY ALTERNATIVE FOR “GOING OUT” THAT HAS THE SAME MEANING.
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!