Progressive forms of verbs consist of the form to be + participle. At least that is what most English grammars say or they are imprecise and speak of the -ing form. My question is what follows after the forms of to be?

I'm working in the garden.

Is working here a present participle or rather a gerund?
I asked myself this question long after I had left school, simply because one accepts what grammar books say without much reflection. But the longer I think about this problem, the more I tend to see it as a gerund.

I stumbled upon this through a curious way of speaking in German dialects. Normally we don't use progressive forms in German, but some dialects make extensive use of forms such as

  • Ich bin am Aufräumen - word-for-word translation: “I'm at tidying up”.

Normally in English a preposition such as in "at tidying up" is omitted and it becomes:

  • I'm tidying up.

On another forum, a German language one, we noted the German dialects that made extensive use of such forms as beim/am Aufräumen—and we discovered that these forms are used extensively in areas along the River Rhine from Switzerland to the north, but also in the east of Germany and in the south. So it is reasonable to ask what form is used in English, participle or gerund? In German it is a gerund, a participle would be unusual. So it might be the same in English, but since participles and gerunds have the same form, it is really difficult to decide which form it is.

I derive the progressive forms from a formula with "in the act of doing":

  • I'm working in the garden means “I'm in the act of working in the garden.”

When you omit "in the act of" you get the normal progressive form.

I forgot to mention that the following archaic form also exist

We were ahunting / went ahunting

where one may assume that the prefix a- is a relic of a preposition.

  • 1. What Reg says below. 2. in English a preposition such as in "at tidying up" is omitted and it becomes: - I'm tidying up. — this is not right: there never was a preposition there in English, and "I am at tidying up" would not be correct. 3. In Germany it is a gerund — this is not correct: beim laufen or am laufen contains an infinitive, not a gerund. 4. Dutch also uses this construction, so it is just a feature of the lower German dialects that they can make a progressive by means of preposition + infinitive. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 16:39
  • Your item 2: When you read my post you see that I used "at tidying up" as a word-for-word translation of the German sentence. The word-for-word translation is no Engisch, it is German with English words. Can you prove that there was never a preposition.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 18:25
  • I could prove it if I consulted an English historical grammar (as could you); for now, I can only assure you that I know and am 100 % certain that this was not the case: the -ing form is a participle there, so prepositions would have been impossible. There is also absolutely no reason to even suggest that there might have been a preposition, since the Dutch/German construction is completely different and unrelated (it uses the infinitive). Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 19:32
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    Infinitives were originally nouns, and they still are, to some degree. But they are etymologically and formally distinct from (English) gerunds, even though they can indeed fulfil the same function in many cases. The word Einkaufen is not really a gerund, if only because German has no real gerunds like English; the German etymological and formal equivalent of the English gerund is -ung, as in Überraschung. So, yes, I am cleaning up and Ich bin am Aufräumen are semantically similar, but they are structured differently and have etymologically different components. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 20:20
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    @falkb I have seen it, really a fine find and the first evidence I read that the progressive forms really can have their origin in a prep + ger.
    – rogermue
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 4:21

5 Answers 5


This is a strange theory that is provably wrong. It is easy to trace "I am working" back to determine that it has not developed from "I am at working", and it is obvious that the rheinische Verlaufsform is different from the English Present Progressive in other ways, not just the preposition. For starters, it uses the nominalized bare infinitive, and it uses it with a definite article. So the English counterpart would really be "I am at the work", where work is a bare infinitive. Does not compute, sorry.

Edit: oh, and the German equivalent of this English -ing is actually -end. So it would have to be "ich bin arbeitend" in German, or something along those lines. Not "ich bin am Arbeiten".

  • And I'll see if I can get someone in chat with a better knowledge of Dutch to comment on this, as the rheinische Verlaufsform, to my knowledge, is all but standard there.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 14:48
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    You write "provably wrong" - but in this matter there are not any proofs up to now. I have been looking for something that might give a hint, but the only formula I have found is "in the act of doing". Though this formula is rare it is used in English and here we have a gerund.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 14:53
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    Exactly cognate to the rheinische Verlaufsform is the way progressives are made in both Danish (Jeg er ved at rydde op = I am by/at to clean up = I’m cleaning up), European Portuguese (Estou a limpar = I am at/to/by to-clean = I’m cleaning), Irish (Tá mé ag glanadh = I am at/by cleaning [verbal noun] = I’m cleaning), Chinese (我在打扫 = I [am] at/by/in clean = I’m cleaning—verbs in Chinese, of course, are not inflected and cannot show which form is being used). The English construction is similar to the Spanish (Estoy limpiando = I am cleaning), where a simple --> Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 14:54
  • --> present participle is used with a copula to indicate the progressive tense. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 14:55
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    @RegDwigнt You're right, this construction is perfectly normal in Dutch. Ik ben aan het koken = "I am cooking". Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 16:41

After some research I came across this remarkable academic document "On the progression of the progressive in early Modern English - icame": Please, read especially page 7, I think this is the actual puzzle piece we're looking for! Here some excerpts:

"... There seems to be pretty general agreement that at least as far as form is concerned it derives most directly from a construction in Old English, with parallels in many other early Germanic languages, which also consisted of a combination of a BE verb and a present participle, in Old English generally taken the ending -ende ... this construction was more common in translations from Latin, especially of complex Latin verb forms, than in original Old English texts ..." => e.g.: æt scip wæs ealne weg yrnende under segle. (that ship was all the way running under sail.)

Further quoting:

"... In Middle English two things happened: the BE plus present participle construction, never particularly frequent in Old English, became even less frequent, and the form of the present participle changed, from taking the ending -ende to taking -ing, to coincide with the nominal verb form known as the gerund, now regularly also ending in -ing. This meant not only that the construction of BE plus present participle became formally more similar to the progressive construction we are familiar with today; it also meant that the Middle English construction of BE plus present participle became more similar to another construction that occurred in Old and Middle English, with BE followed by a preposition, often on, plus the gerund, as in Old English ..." => ZyrstandæZ ic wæs on huntunZe (Here huntunZe is the nominal verb form, the gerund, corresponding to Modern English hunting, and so it means Yesterday I was hunting.)

And finally:

"... In Middle English similar constructions began to be common with just a light a before the main verb, as in ‘He was a-hunting.’, generally seen as a remnant of the full preposition. If the preposition was not only reduced but dropped altogether, there was no longer any formal difference between the two constructions: that with BE followed by the present participle, and that with BE followed by the gerund, now without any intervening preposition. At about the same time that this levelling of the difference between the two constructions became widespread, i.e. roughly at the transition from Middle to Modern English at around A.D. 1500, the combined construction consisting of BE plus an -ing-form seems to have started to increase quite drastically in frequency. ..."


Not only does your reconstruction of the English progressive as from a nominal construction with "at" make sense, it's still true! George Lakoff pointed out some years ago, that we can pronominalize the -ing progressive form with "it" provided we use "at":

She was working in her garden at 4, and two hours later, she was still at it.

At what? one might ask. At working in her garden, evidently. So since it is object of "at", it must be a nominal, hence a gerund rather than a participle.

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    Or maybe the it there is the coal face, or the grindstone. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 11:23

I was just about to ask this question and saw that you already asked it. I only have hypotheses.

When I first read the terminology for the progressive/continuous aspect in English, it was be + gerund. That struck me as strange, since it seems that when you say “The teacher is talking,” the word talking modifies the teacher as adjectives normally modify nouns, as in “The teacher is tall” and “The teacher talking right now is Mrs. Lewis.” So, the -ing word seems to be functioning as a present participle. Indeed, today it’s more popular to call it a present participle.

Why two grammatical terms?

Considering that the gerund and the present participle always have the same form in English, where did people get the idea to call it by two names? The obvious suspect is people trying to understand English grammar in terms of Latin grammar—or perhaps by analogy with Romance languages. Italian has a present progressive and distinct forms for the gerund and present participle. And indeed, in Italian you say L’insegnante sta parlando (with the gerund), not L’insegnante sta parlante (present participle). But in English, the two forms are the same, so maybe the very question of which term to use for the -ing word in a progressive tense is pointless hair-splitting, resulting only from trying to force-fit English grammar terminology to foreign grammatical distinctions. Better to just call it “the -ing word” and be done with it.

On the other hand, just because two words have the same form doesn't mean they serve the same grammatical function. You modify a present participle with an adverb (“loudly talking") but you modify a gerund with an adjective (“loud talking”). You modify a verb in a progressive tense with an adverb (“The teacher is talking loudly”), so that would seem to seal the case for having two grammatical terms and for saying that the -ing word in progressive tenses is a present participle.

More grammatical functions

But wait! After looking at how the gerund and present participle are used in Italian, it’s clear that there are still more, decidedly distinct grammatical functions here. Consider the following:

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

A grinding stone is very heavy.

Rolling refers to the time when the stone is failing to gather moss. This is what the gerund means in Italian outside of progressive tenses: something happening while the main verb is happening or in connection with the main verb. While the stone is rolling and because the stone is rolling, it gathers no moss.

Grinding is an adjective describing the kind of stone. This is what the present participle means in Italian: it really is a way of converting a verb into an adjective, not a way to predicate something of a noun (the essential function of verbs).

Notice that in the present progressive tense, in both English and Italian, the verb predicates some action of the subject right now. This seems like a reasonable argument for saying that the present progressive in English is formed from be + gerund, not be + present participle, though of course the argument for the latter is pretty strong, too.

More grammatical restrictions

And can you really not modify a gerund with an adverb? We say “Loud talking is annoying” but also “Talking loudly is annoying.” “Loudly talking is annoying” is strange but maybe grammatical, and “Talking loud is annoying” is decidedly ungrammatical. Yet talking is clearly a noun in every sentence, and therefore seemingly a gerund.

Conclusion #1

Now consider:

My car is running.

Interpreted as a gerund, that would mean that your car’s engine is on right now. Interpreted as a present participle, that would mean that you have a running car right now, that is, a functional car.

So, my current thinking (tonight) is that the progressive tenses are made with be + gerund after all, contra my initial disbelief. Only, this is a gerund functioning as a verb, not a noun.

Another test of this hypothesis:

The children are describing talking with you at Chuck E. Cheese.

The children are describing talking robots at Chuck E. Cheese.

In the first sentence, talking is a gerund. In the second, talking is a present participle. And so describing is a gerund in both: it's really part of the verb, saying what the children are doing, not an adjective modifying children.

Conclusion #2

On the other hand, the fact that the gerund also functions as a noun (the Romance gerunds can’t do that) and the weird quasi-rules about where you need to put adjectives and adverbs make me think that the -ing form of a verb is just the usual English grammatical mish-mash: it serves many different roles, by various, sometimes conflicting, analogies with a variety of familiar constructions that serve as precedents, sometimes simultaneously. An ideal terminology might have to sort out the roles independently of the syntax, and allow a single -ing to serve more than one role at once.

There are two roles like Romance-language gerunds (present progressive and “something happening in connection with something else that’s happening”), there’s a role as a noun that works almost the same as an infinitive (also called “gerund”), there’s a role as an adjective unrelated to the time of the main verb, and maybe there are more. In a sentence like:

I am imagining playing the piano.

you could say that playing is a noun, the object of imagining, or you could say that playing is a gerund asserting an action that’s connected with imagining, or you could say that playing is a subordinate gerund, or you could even say that imagining playing is a compound present progressive verb. Just as with the many interpretations of quantum mechanics that are consistent with all observations, the language doesn’t provide evidence to say that one of these theories is right and the others are wrong.

Please, someone explain to me why this is wrong, either in a comment or another answer!

  • A few corrections: (1) It’s not just Latin that had separate participles and gerunds—Old English did too (or rather, participles and verbal nouns that could act as gerunds). They fell together in Middle English, with some southern Scottish dialects even keeping them separate to this day. (2) Grinding is not really an adjective here, but a gerund (or even a true verbal noun) acting as a noun adjunct. (More later—have to scoot for now.) Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 17:45
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks for the correction on grinding. That sounds right on. Thinking about this the last couple days, I think I led myself astray by trying to understand -ing by analogy with Romance-language grammar! Well, now I know how it happens. I'm now leaning toward Conclusion #2, but I eagerly await your return and what you know about the southern Scottish dialects.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 12:41

On the form 'The book is a printing' see article by Rissanen in Cambridge History of the English Language vol. 3 (1999) p. 218, who quotes Samuel Johnson's dictionary.

  • THis is more of a comment than an answer, since you're bringing up a specific instance of the user's question. Also, if the resource you're mentioning is not available on line, it's more helpful to say what was actually in the article, rather than referring the reader to an article they most likely cannot get right away if at all. Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:35

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