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I came across this sentence while preparing for the IELTS writing exam:

There are a number of causes of people not doing physical activities.

That causes of should be followed by a noun or gerund. So does people not doing physical activities act as a gerund here?

Could somebody please help me understand it grammatically?

  • Is that "number of courses" or "a number of cases"? – rajah9 Nov 22 '16 at 13:20
  • No, courses of should be followed by a noun phrase, although a gerund phrase does count as one of those. The sentence is somewhat awkward; what task was set for you to solve here for this sentence? Also, the sentence is missing an indefinite article. – tchrist Nov 22 '16 at 13:25
  • I suspect that should be courses for people. I think I'd prefer "courses for people which do not involve physical activities", but there isn't really enough information here about what that sentence is actually describing. – Andrew Leach Nov 22 '16 at 13:32
  • @rajah9 , I have corrected the sentence. It had a spelling mistake. Thanks – KItis Nov 22 '16 at 13:36
  • There are many internet examples of an ACC-ing style structure after 'cause of'. The POSS-ing might be preferable on grounds of traditional analysis, but those are shaky grounds. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 22 '16 at 14:18
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“What grammar is this now?”

That grammatical analysis you’ve asked for follows. It’s a clunky sentence, but its parse is not a great mystery. Given:

  • There are a number of causes of people not doing physical activities.

The portion set in bold is a non-finite clause featuring the -ing inflection of the verb. It is a negated clause whose subject is people and whose object is physical activities. This entire verb clause serves as the prepositional object for that sentence’s second instance of of.

If instead of using a noun, people had been a pronoun standing in for those people, then it would have been in the object form:

  • There are a number of causes of them not doing physical activities.

If that clause had been in subject position, there would have been some latitude in choosing its head for purposes of verb agreement:

  1. People not doing physical activities are prone to health problems.
  2. People not doing physical activities is this country’s most serious health problem.

In the first sentence, the tensed verb are is in the plural because it is agreeing with people.

In the second sentence, the tensed verb is is in the singular because it is agreeing with (not) doing.

But I would say that in your sentence, the head is (not) doing rather than people. That’s because it is not the people themselves whose cause is under discussion, but rather their (not) doing physical activities.

Analysis via Computational Linguistics

If you run that sentence through the online Stanford Parser tool, it presents this syntactic analysis:

Your query

There are a number of causes of people not doing physical activities.

Tagging

There/EX are/VBP a/DT number/NN of/IN causes/NNS of/IN people/NNS not/RB doing/VBG physical/JJ activities/NNS ./.

Parse

(ROOT (S (NP (EX There)) (VP (VBP are) (NP (NP (DT a) (NN number)) (PP (IN of) (S (NP (NP (NNS causes)) (PP (IN of) (NP (NNS people)))) (RB not) (VP (VBG doing) (NP (JJ physical) (NNS activities))))))) (. .)))

That’s attaching the very last bit somewhat differently than I might, but it’s interesting to see what the computer thinks of it. Mine might run more like what they get for I know three causes of people not doing physical activities:

(ROOT
  (S
    (NP (PRP I))
    (VP (VBP know)
      (NP
        (NP (CD three) (NNS causes))
        (PP (IN of)
          (NP (NNS people)
            (S (RB not)
              (VP (VBG doing)
                (NP (JJ physical) (NNS activities))))))))
    (. .)))

That way people not doing physical activities is the clause that completes of.

Happier Rewrites

Even though you didn’t ask, there are many other ways to write that sentence if the aim is to make it cleaner. Here are just a few:

  • There are several reasons behind people not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons behind them not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons behind their not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons for people not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons for people’s not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons for them not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons for their not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons why people are not doing physical activities.
  • There are several reasons why they are not doing physical activities.

The last pair is the best of the rewrites listed, in my estimation, but certainly others are possible. The possessive choices are highly stylized and seldom encountered in normal conversation.

  • I can't accept this. 'People not doing physical activities' are not caused. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 22 '16 at 14:46
  • @EdwinAshworth I don’t understand: what can you “not accept” here? Are you simply saying you dislike the sentence? – tchrist Nov 22 '16 at 14:47
  • Logically, it's the [people's] not doing physical activities that is caused. As I said in the comment earlier, the POSS-ing structure would seem more fidelitous. It could be that the (apparently idiomatic) mismatch of the use of the ACC-ing is what is worrying OP. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 22 '16 at 14:50
  • @EdwinAshworth We do not know the testing context in which the sentence occurred. The poster asked for help analysing its grammar. Have you another parse in mind? Just read causes of as reasons for; the grammar is identical. – tchrist Nov 22 '16 at 14:51
  • I'd say it's extra-grammatical, but (I'm estimating from the number of Google hits, and experience) not unacceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 22 '16 at 14:53

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