Literature is inevitably a distorting--not a neutral--medium. Writers interpose their vision between the reader and reality.

In the above sentence, is the word distorting a gerund or a participle ? Why is the correct word not distortion?

  • 1
    It's an adjective modifying the noun "medium".
    – BillJ
    Feb 17, 2017 at 15:14
  • I hope you approve of how I edited your question. If not, feel free to reject the edit. By the way, to highlight text as I have done, put a greater than (>) symbol before the material you want highlighted. Don Feb 17, 2017 at 15:21

3 Answers 3


To answer the actual questions for a change,

In the above sentence, is the word distorting a gerund or a participle?

Yes. Gerund v. Participle is a distinction without a real difference in English. You can call it either.
Or you can call it an Adjective, as BillJ does; in this sentence it could be, and you can't tell for sure.

Why is the correct word not distortion?

Because distorting modifies medium -- after the dashed interpolation -- using distortion instead would create the noun compound a distortion medium, which is not idiomatic, does not mean the same thing as a distorting medium, and is not parallel in sense with a neutral medium, to which it is being compared.


It’s an adjective

It’s coordinated with an adjective, “neutral”. This suggests it is also an adjective, although I don’t know if this is really strong evidence.

What you can call it in addition to that depends on how you answer two tricky questions about grammar.

Can a word simultaneously be a participle and an adjective?

It’s actually disputable whether adjectives like this are “participles”, strictly speaking. The mainstream view is that a participle is a verbal form—in other words, that even though a participle behaves a lot like an adjective, it isn’t an adjective. This view is based on the fact that -ing words that behave like adjectives can actually used in two mutually exclusive constructions that behave in slightly diferent ways:

  1. Some adjective-like -ing words can take direct objects and can take adverbs that normally only modify verbs, but cannot be used in constructions that require a gradable adjective.

    Example: “He is painting.”
    We can add a direct object and the verb-modifying adverb “carefully”:
    “He is carefully painting a picture.”
    We cannot add the adjective-specific adverb “very”:
    “*He is very painting” is incorrect.

  2. Other adjective-like -ing words cannot take direct objects or verb-specific adverbs, but can be used in constructions that require a gradable adjective.

    Example: “That’s exciting!”
    We cannot add a direct object or the verb-modifying adverb “carefully”:
    “*That’s exciting me!” is incorrect. (Technically, this is grammatically possible, but it changes the meaning of “excited” by forcing it to be interpreted as an -ing word of category (1).)
    “*That’s carefully exciting!” is incorrect.
    We can add the adverb “very”, which is used with gradable adjectives: “That’s very exciting!”

As I mentioned with regard to “exciting”, sometimes (actually, often) an -ing word might be able to be used in either way, but it can’t be used in both ways at the same time. While “That’s exciting me” is technically grammatical (although not idiomatic), it is absolutely ungrammatical to say something like “*That’s very exciting me”.

The mainstream viewpoint is that -ing words in class (1) are (inflected forms of) verbs (and therefore classified as “participles”) while -ing words in class (2) are lexically derived adjectives, and therefore not truly participles according to most classification schemes. The words in class (2) may be called something like “participial adjectives”.

However, traditional or just more generalized terminology may use the word “participle” to encompass adjective-like -ing words of both category (1) and category (2).

Also, there are non-mainstream analyses of participles that consider all of them to be adjectives, even the ones that mainstream grammar classifies as verbs. In these analyses, the words in class (1) and (2) might both be called participles.

Can a word simultaneously be a participle and a gerund?

Another disputed point is whether “participle” is a distinct category from “gerund”. Both are always identical in form (the -ing form). The only possible way to distinguish them is the context in which they are used. And sometimes even this does not clearly distinguish them.

While in the past, some writers have used “gerund” as an overarching category, the cover term I see most often in modern grammatical descriptions is “gerund-participle”, which I believe was introduced in Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Huddleston and Pullum do however reserve “gerund-participle” to refer to -ing words that are verbs. This means that, if you agree that “distorting” is an adjective, it would not qualify as a “gerund-participle” in the terms of Huddleston and Pullum.

So “adjective” or “participle” is probably the best description

So, as BillJ said, “adjective” is probably the best term to describe this use of “distorting”. “Participle” is also understandable, although it might be technically incorrect in terminological systems that require a participle to be a verb rather than an adjective. “Gerund” is not a very good way to describe this.

Why “distortion” would be wrong

As for why “distorting” is used rather than “distortion”, it’s because “distortion” is a noun that isn’t as specific in meaning. A “distorting medium” pretty clearly means “a medium that distorts”. A “distortion medium” would just mean “a medium related in some way to distortion”. It would be a vague and possibly confusing term.

Another reason is the first fact I brought up: the word “distorting” is coordinated with the adjective “neutral”. It would be awkward (maybe even ungrammatical) to coordinate a noun with an adjective. “A distortion—not a neutral—medium” sounds wrong, and looks like it might be a mistyped version of “a distortion—not a neutral medium”.


The classical distinction, very roughly, is that gerunds are verbal nouns ("Distorting reality is what literature does"), and participles serve as adjectives, so this case would be a participle. Some linguists have argued, though, that there's no reason to believe that Modern English distinguishes the two forms, even though earlier forms of the language did. See Mark Liberman here, for example. If you speak German, I believe that the English gerund is cognate with the German nouns in -ung (e.g. Wirkung "effect"), and the English participle to the German adjectives in -end (e.g. wirkend "active"), though now the English and German constructions have very different uses.

  • I still think that gerunds are never nouns, just verbs, because they do not accept adjectives, only manner adverbs and objects. You can't talk about ✳lovely distorting reality with the adjective lovely, which proves that distorting is not a noun. It has a direct object. No noun accepts manner adverbs and objects, so it cannot be a noun. So why are people confused? Because it's rather the entire gerund phrase which as a constituent can take the place of a noun phrase. This is what makes people mistake verbs for nouns, but gerunds are still only verbs.
    – tchrist
    Feb 18, 2017 at 3:31
  • On the other hand, with the lovely distorting of reality, you now have a noun. But that's not a gerund, because it is wholly deverbal. It is only a noun. It accepts the adjective which the verb version rejected, and it now requires a preposition to connect it to the next noun, reality, something which verbs do not require nor allow. IMHO if you always talk only about English nouns and verbs and adjectives, never of Latin's gerunds and participles, this will all be much clearer.
    – tchrist
    Feb 18, 2017 at 3:35

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