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In this sentence is singing a verb or a gerund?

Look at the children whom you can hear singing.

  • You can ask the same question with a simpler sentence, like I hear the children singing or I heard them singing. It becomes more interesting when you contrast singing children with children singing though, like comparing Singing children are a delight to the ear and eye versus I don’t like to hear monarchist children singing that anti-democratic doggerel on Independence Day of all days. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 17:09
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    All gerunds are verbs. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 17:19
  • possible duplicate of Can a gerund be modified by an adjective? – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 17:49
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Singing is a present participle in the case (following @tchrist ’s suggestion) of “I hear children singing.”

It would be a gerund, i.e., serving in lieu of a noun as direct object of verb hear, if you got rid of the children: “I hear singing.” But in “I hear children singing,” the direct object of the verb is children, and singing is an adjectival modifier thereof, a common function for participles.

A partially analogous construction is available using the past participle, as in “I heard the aria sung,” though the use of the past participle makes the construction passive where the present makes it active: the child sings, the aria is sung.

  • Of course, it is still a verb there, since the nonfinite clause children singing songs has a direct object (songs) and even a subject, too (children). The whole clause is the direct object of hear. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 17:46
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    No, the direct object of hear in I hear (the) children singing is the gerund clause (the) children singing. Try a cleft on it: (The )Children singing is what I hear; or passivize it: Children singing (sweetly) was heard by everyone in the room. – John Lawler Jul 5 '14 at 18:07
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    @JohnLawler I think this confusion arises out of thinking that a direct object must be a single substantive rather than a constituent. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 18:10
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    @tchrist: Yes, I know. That's what the third grade teacher said, and who studies grammar after grammar school? – John Lawler Jul 5 '14 at 18:23
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    Both possessive and accusative gerund complementizers are perfectly normal. There's another sense of children singing that means the same but has a different construction; from children (who are) singing, and that's plural. But if you add sweetly to the gerund, you get (The )Children singing sweetly is what I hear, and that's unquestionably sentential and singular. "Children singing" by itself is ambiguous between modified plural noun and singular clause; but one can prefer one interpretation, especially in a context where it doesn't make a difference. – John Lawler Jul 5 '14 at 19:45
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In comments, John Lawler wrote:

The direct object of hear in I hear (the) children singing is the gerund clause (the) children singing.

  • Try a cleft on it: (The )Children singing is what I hear;
  • or passivize it: Children singing (sweetly) was heard by everyone in the room.

Both possessive and accusative gerund complementizers are perfectly normal. There's another sense of children singing that means the same but has a different construction; from children (who are) singing, and that's plural. But if you add sweetly to the gerund, you get (The )Children singing sweetly is what I hear, and that's unquestionably sentential and singular.

"Children singing" by itself is ambiguous between modified plural noun and singular clause; but one can prefer one interpretation, especially in a context where it doesn't make a difference.

  • It might be just me, but 'Children singing (sweetly) was heard by everyone in the room' sounds off to my ears. But 'Children singing sweetly was what I heard' sounds quite acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 31 at 15:56

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