In the sentence "Hanging bats populate most of the caves in North America," what is the role of "hanging bats"? I believe it is a simple noun phrase containing the participle "hanging" (which modifies "bats"), while another individual referred to it as a gerund phrase.

I should mention that the quiz question is "What kind of phrase is underlined?"


You are correct. Hanging bats here obviously means ‘bats which hang’, since hanging anything is not semantically compatible with the verb populate.

It is however possible to employ hanging bats with hanging as a gerund.

  1. Hanging bats in the batrack is the batboy's task. ... Here hanging is a gerund and bats is its complement.

  2. The great timber baulks over the courtyard, on which condemned criminals were executed, were known as the hanging bats. ... Here hanging is a gerund employed as an attributive noun, and the construction means ‘a bat employed in hanging’.

  • 1
    This reminds me of the difference between running shoes, running water, and running late.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15 '13 at 3:47
  • @tchrist Yah, running would have been a lot easier. Mar 15 '13 at 11:25
  • 2
    Hanging bats sounds like a spooky set of printer's ornaments. Mar 16 '13 at 10:33

Hanging bats is the subject. The question is which of those two words is the real subject.

We aren’t going to be out hanging bats like ornaments from a tree. If we were, then hanging would be the subject and bats the object of that hanging, and hanging therefore a gerund in the old grammar books. That would make hanging the real subject.

But it isn’t. It’s the bats themselves who are hanging from the ceilings of the the caves like so many furry stalactites. They are bats a-hangin’ — they are “bats pendant”, if you would. Therefore, hanging is here acting as an attributive noun modifier, which makes it a participle in the old books. Bats is the real subject.

However, this isn’t an adjective like interesting is because it resists intensifiers like very. You can’t say the very interesting bats are *very hanging. It still retains too much of its verbal nature for that.

So it’s really just an -ing word in both cases, and not always of much use to try to figure out which particular flavor we think we’re looking at.

  • 1
    Thanks for the input. I have no problem with it being the subject of the sentence (that much is obvious), but do have issues with my daughter being taught it's a gerund phrase simply because it IS the subject. My lit/lang degree screams "NO" but I cannot find adequate documentation in my old grammar texts.
    – user39589
    Mar 15 '13 at 1:45
  • 1
    @user39589 Think of it this way: if you can delete bats without substantively changing the meaning of the sentence, then hanging is a gerund; otherwise it is a participle.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15 '13 at 1:58
  • 1
    I love 'bats pendant' - it has an heraldic ring but, alas, I find only bats volant and bats displayed. A charming alternative term is rere-mouse. Mar 15 '13 at 2:01
  • @StoneyB Well, the ratpenat does figure prominently in the old heraldry of the Crown of Aragon, but that one is clearly volant, not pendant.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15 '13 at 2:10
  • @StoneyB Finally found one: fantasmagoria.eu/kurositsuji-anime-bat-pendant-coat-of-arms :)
    – tchrist
    Mar 15 '13 at 3:45

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