I am curious about the grammar behind the word "climbing" in the phrase "climbing wall" (or the word "running" in the phrase "running shoes," etc).

I first thought it was an adjective describing the noun wall. However, I am wondering if these cases are the closest the English language gets to a gerundive? Both "climbing" and "running" are forms of a verb, and moreover, the phrase could be said as "the wall about to be climbed." In Latin, the "about to be climbed" would be the future passive participle, also known as the gerundive. Furthermore, in Latin, there also are gerundives of purpose, which would translate these phrases into "the shoes for the purpose of running" or "the wall for the purpose of climbing."

Is there an official name for these types of grammatical constructions?

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    It depends on which Church of English you worship in. – Hot Licks Feb 2 '16 at 1:30
  • They're present participles acting as modifiers, telling us what type of wall or shoes are under consideration. Latin gerundives carry some extra semantic baggage, so that term isn't used in English grammar. – deadrat Feb 2 '16 at 2:23
  • @deadrat I agree that gerundives aren't used in English and cannot be translated correctly; however, I do not think that present participles acting as a modifiers is the correct answer because the nouns they are modifying do not do the action. For example, in "the fascinating article" or in "the crying baby," the article is fascinating and the baby is crying, but, with my question, the the shoes are not running and the wall is not climbing. – Matthew S. Feb 2 '16 at 2:35
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    If I would use the term gerundive in English I would say "a book to read" is the English equivalent of a Latin gerundive. But I would avoid such a term as not everybody knows about Latin gerundives. – rogermue Feb 2 '16 at 4:53
  • Feel free to explain grammatically why a climbing wall is different from a climbing plant, and running shoes different from running water. – DJClayworth Feb 2 '16 at 7:17

"A climbing wall" and "running shoes" – Of course, climbing and running are gerunds. A climbing wall is a wall for climbing where beginners can practise climbing a rocķ face. Running shoes are shoes good for running – just as a washing machine is a machine for washing. (If you use a preposition then the ing-form after it is a gerund and not a participle.)

This type of word formation of compound nouns have the structure gerund + noun. It is no problem to distinguish such gerunds as compound element from participles as a climbing wall is not in the act of “climbing” and running shoes are not in the act of “running”. In fact, I have never found such compounds where you can be in doubt about the nature of the ing-form. And if such cases are possible, an author would avoid such ambiguous formations.

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I found the answer within The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (on page 1651) calls this grammatical structure a gerund-participle.

The text starts with an introduction to compounds of nouns + verbs:

A great many lexical bases in English can be either verbs or nouns, and as a result there may be uncertainty or indeterminacy as to whether a component of a compound is one or the other. For example, payday might be glossed as "day on which people are paid" (taking pay as a verb) or "day on which people receive their pay" (with pay as a noun). Dance-hall might similarly be glossed as "hall where one dances" or "hall for dances".

The text then gives examples of Verbal element has the -ing suffix (the construction my question is about):

chewing-gum drinking-water eating-apple frying-pan hiding-place living-room talking-point turning-point walking-stick whipping-boy

It describes this construction a gerund-participle that can show purpose (which invalidates this construction as an adjective):

These characteristically have a purposive meaning: "gum for chewing", "pan for frying in". Again such compounds are mainly hyponymic, but there are a few lexicalised exceptions, such as whipping-boy, "scapegoat". In some cases there is alternation between a compound where the verbal element is morphologically simple, as in [e.g. copycat, crybaby], and one where it has the gerund-participle form, as here: frying-pan/fry-pan, swimming-costume/swim-suit.

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  • 1
    A sleeping bag vs a sleeping baby. A smoking room vs a smoking gun (or dish). – user140086 Feb 2 '16 at 4:01
  • CGEL's term gerund/participle is sometimes useful when the ing-form can be either gerund or participle. But in most cases this new term prevents a real understanding of both forms. This is the case with formations like climbing wall or running shoes. A learner should understand the difference between running shoes and running water. Though the forms are the same you can decide by simple logic whether you have a gerund or a participle. – rogermue Feb 3 '16 at 7:49

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