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Consider the following sentence:

The government wants to encourage understanding of science.

Now, "to encourage understanding of science" is a non-finite subordinate clause functioning as an object. What about "understanding of science"? Is that also a non-finite clause? Or is "understanding" considered to be a noun?

Learning is an easy process for some.

Here, is "learning" a noun or a non-finite subordinate clause functioning as the subject of the whole clause?

I'm inclined to say that "understanding" is a noun, whereas "learning" is a non-finite clause. However, I don't know what this intuition is based on.

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I think my question is related. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 11 '12 at 12:01
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In your examples, understanding and learning are both nouns. Understanding is the object of the verb encourage and it is post-modified by the prepositional phrase of science. Learning is the subject of the verb is.

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However, the second sentence has the form of a common example of non-finite phrases ("Running without shoes is healthy"), which would mean that "learning" is not a noun. – John Manak Jun 11 '12 at 12:50
Although there might actually be difference between "Running without shoes is healthy." and "Running is healthy." In the former sentence, "running" is part of a non-finite clause, whereas in the latter it is a noun. – John Manak Jun 11 '12 at 12:52
@JohnManak: One test in these cases is to see whether the ‘-ing’ form can be modified by an adjective or an adverb. Both the examples in your OP allow an adjective: ‘The government wants to encourage a thorough understanding of science’ and ‘Rote learning is an easy process for some.’ That tells us they’re nouns. In your latest example, both ‘Running often is healthy’ and ‘Frequent running is healthy’ are possible sentences, which leaves the word class of ‘running’ unclear. – Barrie England Jun 11 '12 at 13:46
Would it be fair to say then that 'running' in 'Running is healthy' can be considered both a non-finite clause and a noun? – John Manak Jun 12 '12 at 1:10
@JohnManak: I think we have to be careful about mixing a term for a word category, 'noun', with a term for a type of clause. To keep things simple, I'd still prefer to say that, in that sentence, 'running' can be seen as either a noun or as a non-finite verb, for the reason I gave. But sentences don't usually occur in isolation, and the wider context might make it clear which it was. – Barrie England Jun 12 '12 at 6:16

In these cases, you chose words (understanding & learning) that are nouns, and the sentences work best if they are interpreted as nouns.

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Understanding is a noun. You could put 'the' in front of it:

to encourage the understanding of science

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Is that the only criterion? – John Manak Jun 11 '12 at 11:55
I wouldn't go so far as the say it was the only one. Nouns name things, and can be the object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or the subject of a clause, are the head of a noun phrase, take attributive adjectives and so on. They also take an article, which is by far the simplest test. Another quick and easy test is wether it can be used with 'same'. – Roaring Fish Jun 11 '12 at 12:29
You can't always put 'the' in front of nouns. Not in *"The frequent running is healthy." – Peter Shor Jun 11 '12 at 15:31
That would be because 'frequent' is an adjective... – Roaring Fish Jun 11 '12 at 16:37

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