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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. Nov 21, 2016 at 18:37
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    Possible duplicate of What's the difference between a gerund and a participle? Nov 21, 2016 at 18:42
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    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. Nov 22, 2016 at 3:09
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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".)
    – herisson
    Nov 22, 2016 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, 2016 at 5:25

2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • Yes, but how does this bear on whether gerund and participle are distinct?
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 22, 2016 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, 2017 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. Mar 15, 2017 at 10:59
  • @Greg Lee 'Yes, but how does this bear on whether gerund and participle are distinct?' ___ JL says that eating could be a noun or it could be a gerund in 'I was thinking about eating'. He has chosen another terminology, but essentially he's saying << You can't tell whether 'eating' is verbier {JL's gerund, OP's participle} or nounier {JL's noun, OP's gerund} here. >> And he's been into linguistics a long time. (I never use 'gerund' as it has these conflicting definitions. I go with the Quirk/ACGEL splitting, deverbal noun ... ... ... ... obvious participle in ... Oct 31, 2019 at 13:40
  • say 'he was eating'. ['Eating' is never a deverbal noun, unlike say 'painting/s' in 'his paintings are excellent'.]Though I get stuck in the middle.) Oct 31, 2019 at 13:40
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Present participle has a form of "be" verb before it. Example: I am eating (past simple: I was eating) He / she is eating: (past simple:He / she was eating)

The present participle expresses an action that´s going on at a given period of time. It could be: Present participle: I am eating. (Happening now) Future continuous: I will be eating at 7:20pm. (This will be happening at a given period of time in the future) Past continuous: I was eating at 7:30am (This was happening at 7:30am)

Gerund has no "be" verb before it, unless it´s a question though. Gerund can not use in the past, you´ll need an auxiliary verb before it to do so. This is because gerunds are nouns. Some nouns derive their names from verbs, such are considered gerunds.

Some examples:

I love something. ("Something" in this sentence is a NOUN")

Now, let´s substitute the word "Something" for any other noun:

I love apple I love football (Football is an event, a sport an activity, a sport, a noun.) I love people I love eating (This does not mean that I´m eating now) I love fishing

Similarly,I was thinking about eating the apple falls in the same category

You think about "SOMETHING". "Something" is a "NOUN". Substitute the word "Something" for any other noun to make a complete sentence.

Example:

I was thinking about eating. I was thinking about dancing. I was thinking about life. I was thinking about my family

I was thinking about eating ... ("the apple") is just a complement in this case.

I love dancing (This does not mean that I even know how to dance, perhaps I just like watching it.)

I hope this does help.

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