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, 2016 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! Jan 13, 2016 at 14:46
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    You might find this post helpful! :) Jan 13, 2016 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, 2016 at 14:53

2 Answers 2


It's a gerund. A gerund functions as a 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, 2016 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. Jan 13, 2016 at 14:12
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    @user151486 "Being" is NOT an adjective, it's a verb. John being absent is a gerund-participial clause (not a phrase) in which John is subject, being the verb and the adjective absent a predicative complement. The clause functions as complement to the preposition at. The choice of non-genitive John or genitive John's is a matter of style, the latter being slightly more formal. Either way, the analysis is the same. In traditional grammar "being" is called a gerund, but in modern grammar, it's a non-finite verb that can take various complements.
    – BillJ
    Jan 13, 2016 at 16:50
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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, 2016 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. Jan 14, 2016 at 8:37

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, 2016 at 17:10
  • This is right, and see also Benjamin Harmon's answer above.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 13, 2016 at 18:41
  • @Greg Lee What is right?
    – BillJ
    Jan 13, 2016 at 18:51
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    No one makes more sense on this subject of how nominalization works than McCawley in TSPE. I learned a lot from his discussion (some of which I have forgotten).
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 13, 2016 at 20:57
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    @Greg Lee. I follow Huddleston & Pullum's award-winning Cambridge Grammar. I've corresponded with both authors on most points of grammar over the years, so I'd like to think I know just a little bit about what I'm talking about.
    – BillJ
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:06

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