Some time ago I learned the difference between a present participle and a gerund, so today I decided to pass any online test to make sure I understand it.

I passed it having made only one mistake, which asked the difference between the two in this sentence:

Nobody was surprised at John being absent.

One needed to choose between present participle and gerund in reference to the word being.

I chose present participle because the word being here plays a role of an adjective apart from a verb.

I thought that if it had read John's being, then the word would have been a participle because it would be a noun in a form of a verb.

I know, this question is a duplicate and I agree that it should be closed, but I just would like to find out whether it was me who made a mistake or whether it was the website that diddo.

  • @Araucaria Oh, okay, I actually didn't even mind deleting it as a duplication because it is. But what I was interested in is this particular case of defining "being". And now I see that some answers given here might be useful for those who know the distinction between these two but came across this case and have troubles defining the word "being". – user151486 Jan 13 '16 at 14:44
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    You might want to wait and see how it develops. Not many of the gerund questions here address gerunds with common nouns in plain case as Subject. They usually have pronouns or ___'s in the questions, so yours is a bit more unusual. Btw, a gerund is always a verb, it's never a noun! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 13 '16 at 14:46
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    You might find this post helpful! :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 13 '16 at 14:51
  • @Araucaria Is it? Oh, then it's just my Russian way of thinking. If I see an inged word and can make a "what?" question about it (like "I love swimming" - "What do I like?"), then I consider the word to be a noun. I will try to get myself used to what actually a gerund is. Thanks! – user151486 Jan 13 '16 at 14:53

It's a gerund. A gerund functions as noun. A noun is a thing. "John being absent" is a thing. It is the thing that nobody was surprised at.

It's not functioning as a participle. A participle relates to a linking verb. The only verb in the sentence is "was." The subject of that verb is "nobody." However, "nobody" wasn't "being absent."

It's also not functioning as a participle that is acting as an adjective. When a present participle is being used as an adjective, it is done so like in the following: "The running car overheated." "Being" isn't describing John like "running" is describing car. One way that you can tell is by simply moving "being" before John. Whereas sometimes adjectives can follow a noun, they usually appear before the noun they modify and can always be moved before it and still have it make sense. "Being absent John" doesn't work, so "being absent" is clearly not adjectival, so "being" is not a participle standing in for an adjective.

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    I didn't think of analyzing it as a complex. So, if I make it posessive (John's being), nothing will change, right? It will still be a gerund. – user151486 Jan 13 '16 at 13:59
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    Actually, saying "John's being" in this sentence makes it more clearly a gerund. The apostrophe S ('s) on John makes John possessive. Only things (nouns) can be possessed, not verbs. The reason I say "in this sentence," however, is that "John's" in some contexts could be a contraction of "John is." If that were the case, then "being" immediately following "John's" would be a participle, and "John's being" would be using the present progressive tense. – Benjamin Harman Jan 13 '16 at 14:12
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    user151486 Yes, it's a difficult aspect of our grammar. My advice is to stick with modern grammar; it's what most serious/professional grammarians and linguists do. But be careful with my example I witnessed 'the 'killing of the birds'. In modern grammar, killing in that example is a noun (a gerundial noun to be precise). This is evident from the fact that it takes the definite article the and an of phrase as complement. Verbs cannot take articles and such complements. – BillJ Jan 13 '16 at 18:41
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    @user151486 : You asked: "If I say 'John's being happy' as a sentence, not as a part of an it, is 'being' a participle?" ANSWER: Yes, you have it exactly right. – Benjamin Harman Jan 14 '16 at 8:37
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    @user151486 : You asked: "And if I say, 'I saw him being happy,' 'being' is a gerund?" ANSWER: Yes! By Jove, I think you've got it!!! – Benjamin Harman Jan 14 '16 at 8:39

In traditional grammar the verb being would be considered a gerund in the Original Poster's example. The reason for this is that the clause it heads (John being absent) is the complement of a preposition.

The distinction between a participle and a gerund is troublesome. It looks as if the difference is to do with parts of speech or something similar. In fact, the real distinction has to do with the grammatical relations (syntactic functions).

In traditional grammar, a gerund is an -ing form of a verb that heads a clause functioning as:

  • Subject of a clause
  • Object of a verb
  • Complement of a preposition

In all other situations, an -ing form of the verb is considered a participle. Clauses headed by participles are often modifiers in clause or phrase structure.

Some modern grammars such as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) regard the distinction between gerunds and participles as unhelpful, because it blurs the line between what type of word the -ing form is and what job it is doing in the sentence. They use the term gerund-participle to refer to the type of word regardless of what job the clause is doing in the larger sentence.

  • I would say that John / John's being absent is a non-finite participial clause (not a phrase). To be clear, are you saying that too? I wondered because you use the word 'phrase' later in your answer. – BillJ Jan 13 '16 at 17:10
  • This is right, and see also Benjamin Harmon's answer above. – Greg Lee Jan 13 '16 at 18:41
  • @Greg Lee What is right? – BillJ Jan 13 '16 at 18:51
  • @BillJ, I think Araucaria and Harman are both right. Araucaria has a more general view. – Greg Lee Jan 13 '16 at 19:14
  • @Greg Lee Yes, but we are talking about the finer points of grammar here. Unlike a phrase, a clause has a subject-predicate relationship, and can be negated etc. The OP’s example has a subject “John” and a predicate “being absent”, so it's clearly a clause. I think it’s really important to make that distinction, otherwise you get people thinking that John being absent is a noun phrase when it's actually a clause. – BillJ Jan 13 '16 at 19:21

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