Recently, I was told that the word "programming" in the phrase "programming thoughts" is a verb in the gerund-participle form and that the term "gerund" by itself is obsolete in modern grammar. I was confused by this, because to me the construction seems exactly the same as in, say, "Shower Thoughts": a noun being modified by an attributive noun. I understand that it's the same form as the present participle. But it seems to act exactly as a noun phrase: for example, it can be modified by adjectives like "good" or "bad." I know that some -ing words can be analyzed as deverbal nouns; this is described here: what is the difference between a “deverbal noun” and a “verbal noun”? However, the tests given seem to mainly apply to count nouns; normally we can't pluralize mass nouns, and they can't take the indefinite article a/an. The definite article can be used with programming; for example, in the phrase "the programming of computers."

So why can't it be considered an indefinite deverbal noun? Is that even the right terminology? Is there any terminology in modern theories of syntax by which one can distinguish the "programming" in "programming class" (a class about programming) from the "programming" in "programming grandparent" (a grandparent who programs), or are these not considered to be distinct constructions?

I've read a Language Log article about the concept of gerund-partiple and how it covers some of the things traditionally labelled as "gerund" (Gerunds vs. participles) but the examples of the "gerund" here seem to be more verby than "programming":

Destroying the files was a serious mistake.
I regret destroying the files.

Also, in a comment, Mark Liberman says

Huddleston and Pullum argue, in addition, that the traditional functional distinction between gerunds and present participles is not a coherent one, and should be abandoned. That's not the same as arguing that all -ing forms are gerund-participles — this is clearly false — or there are no functional distinctions among uses of gerund-participles — H & P retain or propose several, just not anything that's closely congruent with the traditional split.]

What are the -ing forms that are "clearly" not gerund participles? And what are the names Huddleston and Pullum use for the functional distinctions?

This Wiktionary discussion suggests that H & P distinguish "gerundial nouns" from "gerund-participles" using the following criteria:

  • Complementation: Among other things, gerundial nouns take an "of" -prepositional phrase as complement ("the singing of the song").
  • Modification: Gerundial nouns take an adjective as modifier, while participles take an adverb. ("Her splendid singing of the song left them transfixed.")
  • Determiners: Only nouns can take the definite article ("the singing of the song").
  • Plurals: Only nouns can take the plural (however, they don't always do so).

By these criteria, it seems to me that "programming" is a gerundial noun, not a gerund-participle. And assuming the term is compositional, I'd think a "gerundial noun" can be called a noun. But I'm not sure I'm getting this right.

I guess the same question applies to words like "cooking" and "writing."

(I know that many dictionaries list "programming" as a noun, but dictionaries can't be trusted to get parts of speech technically correct.)

  • 3
    Can grammarians be trusted to get parts of speech technically correct? And agree with each other?
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2016 at 2:07
  • Basically you need to pick a reference nomenclature, then identify what the word is within that nomenclature. Some may call it a gerund, some a gerund-participle, some a noun, some a kumquat. But whatever the assigned term, the word "programming" can function as what, 40-50 years ago, your 8th grade English teacher called a "noun". And, as is the case with many nouns, it can be used as if it were an adjective under some circumstances. All the rest is just playing with words.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2016 at 2:36
  • I'd agree that 'programming' here is better treated as an attributive noun rather than a pure adjective. deadrat provides some examples where full (or more nearly full) conversion of ing-forms to true adjectives has occurred: [very] retiring; [intensely] disturbing. In the previous thread, I was arguing that the attributive usage has more probably arisen from a form intermediate along the V - N cline rather than from a pure noun (which a deverbal noun is). 'Programming' here surely ... Feb 17, 2016 at 11:40
  • corresponds to 'painting' (as in 'His painting has improved enormously over the years) rather than deverbal 'painting' (as in 'His painting/s was/were stolen last year'). Feb 17, 2016 at 11:40
  • Notice that 'the examples of the "gerund" here seem to be more verby than "programming" ' needs refining. (Admittedly context virtually mandates the premodifier usage here.) In 'Programming has changed a lot over the years' and 'programming techniques', yes; but in 'I remember programming an old ZX-97', no. The very first thing to remember is that POS-labelling only makes any sense for examples of words in actual sentences. And even then it can be ambiguous (Flying planes can be dangerous // The window was broken.) And even if not ambiguous, it may be contentious. Feb 18, 2016 at 10:24

1 Answer 1


I never used the terms "gerund" and "participle" when I was learning syntax, nor when I was teaching it, so I think we could easily do without those terms. However, on the other hand, I don't see a problem with the terminology, provided that one is careful.

For the English forms derived from verbs by adding "-ing", there are:

A. nouns. These take articles, can be modified by adjectives (like any ordinary noun), but do not take direct objects (though sometimes logical objects can be expressed with "of"). They cannot be modified by adverbs, just as other nouns cannot.

B. gerunds, which are verbs used as nouns. These are the heads of nominalized sentences (so that is why they are said to be used as nouns), but like other verbs, do not take articles, cannot be modified by adjectives, can be modified by adverbs, and if transitive, can take direct objects (unlike true nouns).

C. participles, which are verbs used as adjectives. These are either like predicate adjectives, used for the English progressive construction, or noun modifiers. Unlike true adjectives, they cannot be modified by "very". When they are noun modifiers, they can be thought of as coming from reduced relative clauses, and when they are alone, without a direct object or other complement, they will be preposed to the noun they are predicated of. [Chomsky gave the example "the (*very) sleeping child".] If you think of a noun modifier as an adjective, then these are derived adjectives.

D. adjectives. These can usually be modified by "very", but cannot take direct objects. Compare the true adjective "annoying" in "He is very annoying to me", with modifier "very" but without a direct object, and the participle "annoying" in "He is annoying me", which cannot have "very" and does have a direct object.

  • Thanks. It sounds like Huddleston and Pullum call A "gerundial nouns" and B and C "gerund-participles." Would you agree that there is a syntactic distinction between A used as a noun modifier and C used as a noun modifier (e.g. between constructions like "flying manual" and those like "flying fish")? It seems to me that the second can be interpreted as a reduced relative clause, but the first cannot.
    – herisson
    Feb 17, 2016 at 5:06
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    I'm only marginally familiar with Huddleston and Pullum, and I don't much like it. I don't think it would be reasonable to call A anything but nouns, I said what B and C are in my answer. I don't understand your example "flying manual". I agree that "flying fish" could be from a reduced relative clause, so then the "flying" would be a participle (and perhaps an adjective, depending on how you use that term).
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 17, 2016 at 5:17
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    Unlike true adjectives, they cannot be modified by "very" "He is a very retiring sort" seems fine to me.
    – deadrat
    Feb 17, 2016 at 5:28
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    @GregLee We don't say "very retires," but that has more to do with the idiomatic use of retire. We do say "an intensely disturbing situation for me" and "a situation that disturbs me intensely". What does that mean? That *disturbing" isn't a "true" adjective? I think you're on the wrong track when you try to split gerunds into "true" adjectives and "false" adjectives. They're inflected verb forms that have different functions: as noun modifiers (like adjectives) or as the heads of phrases that act as subjects and complements (like nouns).
    – deadrat
    Feb 17, 2016 at 6:19
  • 1
    @deadrat, I'm not splitting "gerunds" into types. (Did you mean "participles"?) I'm splitting noun modifiers into lexical, or "true", adjectives, and noun modifiers in -ing derived from verbs (which modifiers might or might not be called adjectives).
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 17, 2016 at 7:06

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