I have a question. With regard to present participles such as sleeping, singing or fishing. When used in the following sentences are they functioning as nouns or verbs.

I am swimming

In my mind, swimming is and action, so I think that it's a verb. When I look online, it lists participles as nouns.

I'm confused!

  • 1
    You need to distinguish Form from Function. Participle is the name for the -ing form of the verb; it's the Present Active Participle, to be precise. That has nothing to do with how it's used. There are some uses of the present active participle that are main verbs, like the Progressive construction (though only active verbs can do this); there are some other uses that are Gerunds (which are verbs), and still others that are called "participial", which means they can act like adjectives or adverbs. Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:38
  • What practical application would "knowing" whether swimming here "is" a noun or a verb -- or for that matter, an adjective or adverb -- serve? Try testing it by following it with a noun like ducks or races or suits, with a verb like to win or laughing, with an adjective like pretty or nude or nicer or friendlier, or with an adverb like well, then, soon, deep, later, tomorrow, Tuesday, or easily. Did knowing what swimming "is" tell you which of those would be "right" or "wrong"?
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:53
  • ... No, but classification can help understanding. Terms such as 'present participle' and 'participial adjective'can be of use when explaining the ambiguity in say 'These pupils are trying'. Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 18:56
  • @Edwin Wouldn't it be good enough in your example to call trying either a verb or an adjective, depending on intended meaning? Will trying magistrates trying trying cases try trying judges' patience in the higher courts, or might the try work out and so save on legal costs and delays? :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 19:30
  • @tchrist We'll never agree on the lumping / splitting issue. Yes, splitting is messy. With ing-forms, there's the quagmire in the midst of the verb / noun / adjective extremes (Quirk examines the verb - noun cline in fair detail). And then you throw in the preposition factor (rightly), which makes the quagmire pyramidal. Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 19:59

1 Answer 1


In "I am swimming", "swimming" is a verb. If it were an adjective, you could modify it with "very", but *"I am very swimming" is no good. In "I am confused", "confused" could be an adjective or a verb -- it may be ambiguous; I'm not sure. But at least, it can be an adjective, since we have "I am very confused". (Note that "killed" is always a participle and never an adjective, so *"He was very killed" is bad.)

We can't use predicate position as a test with coordination, but elsewhere we can devise a test based on the fact that only like categories can be conjoined. Both -ing verbs and adjectives can modify nouns, as in "the confused athlete"/"the swimming athlete", but *"the confused and swimming athlete" is pretty strange, presumably because we've coordinated different categories: adjective and verb.

(John's answer, given above as a comment, is wrong. Category is intrinsic to constituents -- function is not separable.)

  • swimming is most certainly not a verb in "I am swimming". The verb is am, swimming is the participle. A participle is closer to being an adverb than being a verb - after at, it modifies the (auxillary) verb am.
    – fgp
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 20:16
  • No, @fgp, am is an auxiliary, not a verb. You can tell that by the fact that am is inverted to form a yes-no question: Am I swimming?. Verbs don't work that way: *Swims he in the pool?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 20:30
  • @fgp, see verbix.com/webverbix/English/swim.html. All of the progressive forms of the verb swim, use swimming, including the First person present indicative progressive: I am swimming. John Lawler's comment is spot on regardless of Greg Lee's contrary claim: form and function are discrete designations of a participle.
    – ScotM
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 20:34
  • 2
    @fgp: Greg is correct. The main verb is swimming. The auxiliary verb is am. The first auxiliary verb in an English sentence is inflected for tense (and in the case of be with person and number as well), and all the rest of the verbs in the verb phrase are non-finite forms (infinitive, past participle, or present participle). One can have up to 4 auxiliary verbs in one verb chain: She may have been being interrogated the entire time. May, have, been, and being are all auxiliaries; interrogated is the (past participle form) main verb. umich.edu/~jlawler/VPguide.pdf Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 20:36
  • @GregLee But by that can-I-invert-to-form-a-question logic, am also wouldn't be the verb in "I am here" - asking "Am I here?" is perfectly valid.
    – fgp
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 22:25

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