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A quick question that has popped up from talking with my German pen-pal. In the sentence:

I was thinking about eating the apple.

Is eating there a gerund or a present participle?

If it is just:

I was thinking about eating.

then that seems like a gerund to me. But adding the apple at the end has me confused.

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    Thinking is a present participle; that's the form of the verb that's used in the progressive construction. Eating could be a noun or it could be a gerund in I was thinking about eating -- the speaker would probly know, and might make it obvious in speech, but a reader can't tell. Add a direct object, though, and eating is unambiguously a verb, hence a gerund. Add a definite article, and it's a noun: I was thinking about the eating (not the drinking). Without the context, one can't tell. – John Lawler Nov 21 '16 at 18:37
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    Possible duplicate of What's the difference between a gerund and a participle? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 21 '16 at 18:42
  • Thanks. I understand the basic differences between a gerund and a participle. I was just a little confused in this case. Reading around a bit, I think "eating the apple" is a gerund phrase, and "eating" is a gerund. Confirm or deny? – Chris Nov 21 '16 at 19:49
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    It has been argued that the gerund and the participle are not really distinct constructions: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2639 To avoid distinguishing them, we can refer to the "gerund-participle" form of a verb. (That doesn't mean that all -ing words are gerund-participles. The gerund-participle is a verb, but some -ing words are adjectives, like "exciting" in "a very exciting discovery", and some are nouns, like "hunting" in "the Hunting of the Snark".) – sumelic Nov 22 '16 at 3:57
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    @suməlic Notwithstanding prepositions like during, which has its own strange story of surviving the extinction of its verb. – tchrist Nov 22 '16 at 5:25
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In comments, John Lawler answered:

Thinking is a present participle; that's the form of the verb that's used in the progressive construction. Eating could be a noun or it could be a gerund in I was thinking about eating -- the speaker would probly know, and might make it obvious in speech, but a reader can't tell. Add a direct object, though, and eating is unambiguously a verb, hence a gerund. Add a definite article, and it's a noun: I was thinking about the eating (not the drinking). Without the context, one can't tell.

In the gerund clause X's eating the apple, eating is the gerund. But without a direct object, it's not possible to tell whether it's a gerund or not. Let me say that again -- with only an -ing verb as the object, it may be a gerund or it may not be. Schrödinger's gerund, if you like. It's not automatically to be thought of as a gerund just because it ends in ing.

  • Yes, but how does this bear on whether gerund and participle are distinct? – Greg Lee Dec 22 '16 at 5:27
  • I think it's correct to say that thinking is a present participle. But I don't think that you could say eating in I was thinking about eating can be a gerund (i.e., a verb) rather than a noun. Even without playing with a direct object, it's easy to see that it cannot be a gerund or a verb but only a noun, because you cannot say *I was thinking about frequently eating but can only say I was thinking about frequent eating. – JK2 Feb 20 '17 at 5:49
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    @JK2 Quirk et al prefer a gradience analysis of the noun ... verb distribution here. With sentences like Bill's slowly painting the fence was beginning to annoy me being acceptable, I agree with them. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 15 '17 at 10:59

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