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In the phrase "that would be telling", what is the word "telling"? I think it would be either an adjective or a verb, but which is it?

Neither seems to be obviously wrong. I think the former would give a connotation of "If I were to disclose that, it would reveal too much", and the latter, "If I were to divulge that, I would be telling more than I could or would like".

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    I would call it a gerund noun acting as the complement of the verb, but I am willing to be corrected by the experts. – WS2 Sep 25 '14 at 19:26
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    I'm afraid there's just no telling ... :) – Araucaria Sep 25 '14 at 23:07
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    Note also the other usage: “That would be telling” can also mean something like “That would be a telling mistake”. – Micah Walter Sep 26 '14 at 17:40
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In That would be telling, there is not enough information to distinguish a noun from a gerund.
Telling could be either one in this sentence. Which is, incidentally, a fixed phrase, so it's irregular.

Gerunds act like nouns, but they have verbal powers, like the power to take a direct object.
Real nouns, that have made it all the way from verbhood, have the power to take articles.
That would be telling contains neither a direct object nor an article.

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    Isn't the question rather whether it is being used as a verbal noun (a "gerund") and thus renames an earlier noun, or a verbal adjective (a "participle") that only modifies the earlier noun? i.e. "Answering that question would be telling." vs. "That clue would be telling." I agree that you can't decide between either without more context. – Wlerin Sep 25 '14 at 19:49
  • Certainly tell-ing is a "participle form" of the verb. But that says nothing about its function or use. It could be a true noun, say the name for a forbidden activity (which is the way I would interpret it out of context), but it could be simply a descriptive gerund: That would be telling on somebody. In either event, as I said, it's familiar enough to be a fixed phrase; in fact, it's a fixed sentence, which evokes a fixed pragmatic frame. – John Lawler Sep 25 '14 at 19:58
  • It's not a noun or gerund in this sentence. It's syntactically adjectival. Compare “A telling motive” or “It would be a telling mistake”. – Micah Walter Sep 26 '14 at 17:39
  • Edit: It depends a lot on the sentence! – Micah Walter Sep 26 '14 at 17:39
  • @JohnPeyton: There are cases where it's obvious what they are, like the ones you present. But there are also cases where you can't tell; in those cases it clearly doesn't matter what you call them, because you understand them. – John Lawler Sep 26 '14 at 17:43
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The participle telling "that tells [something], that expresses [something]" has turned into an adjective meaning "expressive, revealing". This can be seen in what is clearly the adjectival use:

For a telling tale of the ways in which women in England deployed campaigns for indigenous women's rights to their own ends see [book] ... — Source.

A telling case is not a representative case, but one that allows in-depth exploration of theoretical issues not previously visible. — Source.

... about your characters; and deliberately, from your conscious writing self, who already knows the character very well and must divine the most vivid way to convey that knowledge to the readers. How do you deliberately create a telling detail? — Source.

It has the same meaning in your example, so it is also the adjectival use.

  • This seems to get at a different meaning of "That would be telling". – Micah Walter Sep 26 '14 at 17:41
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It is a verb in the progressive. Technically, it's part of the verb phrase: "would be telling", which has modal verb (would) followed by an auxiliary verb (be) and the progressive main verb (telling)

  • Eh. The progressive form is be + <verb>-ing. <verb>-ing by itself is not usually referred to as the progressive form, and I'm not sure it should even be considered a verb on its own. – Wlerin Sep 25 '14 at 19:55
  • @Wlerin Yes, without context, one would say (present) participle, but here, within the context of the question, it is a progressive verb, part of a verb phrase. – Jasper Locke Sep 25 '14 at 21:15
  • There's not enough context here to determine that. However, given how this phrase is normally used, I'd say it's highly unlikely that an action-in-progress is in view, rather than simply describing some other previously mentioned action or piece of information as "telling", with "would be" acting as a simple copula, not an auxiliary verb. – Wlerin Sep 25 '14 at 22:57
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I would say it's a participle. More specifically, an adjectival participle. Cf. "interesting."

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I see it as a shortening of a longer sentence: I don't want or can't tell you. If I did, that would be telling things that are a secret.

I suppose that such a sequence was an often used formula and when current formulas are known to everybody they are shortened.

After the shortening it is difficult to say something about the word class. But participle makes no sense. It was a gerund and I would say it is still a gerund.

  • I agree that in the longer sentence "telling" is a gerund. But in practice, "telling" is often used as an adjective, even with modifying adverbs. Merriam-Webster's examples include "The most telling moment in the case was when the victim took the stand." I have a hard time seeing how that could be a gerund. What am I missing? – Joel Anair Sep 25 '14 at 20:21
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    In "telling moment" "telling" is clearly in adjective position before a noun and the meaning of this "telling" (adjective) is quite different from "telling" in "This would be telling". In the latter use we have no second word that might give us a clue about the word class. Only when we try to find out what the longer formula was we can say something about the word class, and the word class won't change when this formula is shortened. – rogermue Sep 25 '14 at 20:30
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"That would be telling!" is an idiomatic phrase. It needn't follow standard grammar as it is so well known to English speakers. Expanded to a more full and understandable sentence:-

"I can't say any more, that would be telling you a secret"

That (saying more), would be telling (a secret) So, the word "telling" is clearly a verb, like speaking, shouting, talking.
"Would be" indicates a possible future "past event"

I am a native English speaker, but never took any exams on English. My first time her. :)

  • I like your view, but I'm a bit baffled by "future past event". I didn't know that such a thing exists. – rogermue Sep 26 '14 at 3:52
  • @rogermue It is an event which, at some point in the future, will have already come to pass. I'm not sure would be describes such an event, though. Will have been, yes. Would be is just a hypothetical copula. – Wlerin Sep 26 '14 at 7:22
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Say we start with some complete sentences:

"You have asked me a question. I won't answer your question because that would be telling a secret."

In the complete sentence, telling is a verb. Creating a shorter sentence via ellipsis does not change its part of speech.

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    But a "verb" that's syntactically nominal, i.e. a gerund. – Micah Walter Sep 26 '14 at 17:41

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