• ᴛʟᴅʀ: Is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word in it that is simultaneously more than one single part of speech in that sentence under the same parse and meaning?

    (For example, a few possible pairings from lexical categories commonly ascribed to English include noun+verb, verb+adjective, adjective+preposition, preposition+conjunction, conjunction+noun, and so on and so forth.)

My hunch is that the answer to my question is no, but I have heard the contrary proposition argued. So I would like to know definitively whether it can or that it cannot, preferably backed up with references and citations supporting whichever direction the answerer chooses to take on this one. If authorities differ, please explain the conflict.

BONUS: I’m especially looking into whether an “‑ing word” can ever be more than one of a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb at the same time in the same sentence under the same parse and meaning. I don’t know, but I suspect that in this case

“There can be only one!”     ⸺Highlander


English is notorious for having words that can act as more than one part of speech depending on how you use them. This famous pair relies on flies and like each being a different part of speech in each sentence:

  • Time flies[verb, singular] like[preposition] an arrow.
  • Fruit flies[noun, plural] like[verb, plural] a banana.

That shows how flies can be either a verb or a noun and how like can be either a preposition or a verb.

Similarly, the word still can be noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

  • You can still[adverb] still[verb] a still[adjective] still[noun].

Or here, using inflections characteristic of each class:

  • Quickly stilling[verb, ‑ing] bubbling stills[noun, plural]
    still[adverb] leaves them stiller[adjective, comparative] than you’d like.

In all those examples, one can assign only a single part of speech to each word as it is used in a given sentence. Outside of a sentence, or at least of a broader syntactic context, it is often impossible to make any such assignment, since the same word has the potential to be two or more different parts of speech.

The ‑ing inflections of verbs are notorious for this property of being able to be several different parts of speech. In my previous example sentence, I used one as a verb (stilling) but another as an adjective (bubbling). These ‑ing words can also easily serve as nouns, as in savings accounts and in swimming competitions.

And I’m perfectly fine with all that.

The problem is that I’ve also been told, quite vociferously in fact, that whenever an ‑ing word in a noun or an adjective, it is also AT THE SAME TIME a verb as well!

I can find no evidence to support this proposition, and I have looked. Hard.

All the putative examples of these I’ve been able to locate seem to err by misparsing syntactic constituents. This is the same class of error as we so often see in sentences like “Give it to whoever is coming” where they mistakenly write whomever thinking that that word is the object of a preposition whereas in fact the object of the preposition is all of whoever is coming, not just whoever alone.

Looking for Evidence

Here is my thinking:

  • If it’s a noun, that means it must do noun things.
  • If it’s a verb, that means it must do verb things.

So the easiest way I can think of to test whether something is one or the other or both is to apply various “does it do this-or-that noun thing?” and “does it this-or-that verb thing” tests, then tally the results to see whether there’s enough evidence for a clear answer either way.

In other words, to gather evidence I have taken a sentence alleged to have these ‑ing words that “are both nouns and verbs at the same time” and applied to them various syntactic tests. These are all simple syntactic tests that should either be true for verbs and false for nouns, or else the other way around. Then I have looked at the results of this evidence. I don’t mean to limit the tests applied, but I myself have used these sorts:

Noun Tests

  • Nouns can be inflected for number.

  • Nouns fit into a particular slot in the larger noun phrase, which includes such things as determiners and adjectives modifying that noun.

  • Nouns phrases can be connected to other noun phrases with prepositions.

  • Noun phrases accept the ’s clitic used to indicate possession. (This can look like another inflection when applied to just a noun alone.)

Verb tests

  • Verbs fit in a larger verb phrase, which includes such things as adverbs.

  • Verbs can accept complements, like direct objects if transitive.

  • Verbs can be inflected in various ways, including for tense, aspect, number, and person.

The sentences we’re going to apply these tests to are these, which are reduced from this answer:

1. Running bulls is easy.

2. Running bulls are dangerous.

The conjecture to prove or disprove is that the word running is two or more parts of speech in either one of those two sentences alone. I already know that it is a different part of speech in sentence 1 as it is in sentence 2: it’s a verb in the first one and an adjective in the second one.

But I really think that that’s all it is. It isn’t also a noun in either of them. Just because running bulls is the subject of sentence 1 doesn’t mean that running is a noun; it can’t be a noun or it wouldn’t be able to take a direct object like is happening there. Only transitive verbs take direct objects; nouns never do.

Possible Origin of Confusion?

I think this confusion may stem from people being told that a complete sentence “must have a noun and a verb”, which isn’t a “real rule” in English. Rather, a sentence must have a subject and its predicate, and lots of things can be subjects other than just plain nouns alone, including clauses like “Running[verb, ‑ing] bulls is hard” or “What they told[verb, past] you is wrong”, where is hard and is wrong are the respective predicates and everything preceding those is each sentence’s respective subject as a clause. Neither running bulls nor what they told you is somehow a noun, since those are clauses. But they’re still subjects nonetheless, and we don’t need to pretend they’re nouns to make them be a subject. That’s the main argument for saying that running is somehow a noun there, and I can’t see it.

See my reasoning here for the application of noun tests and verb tests to these two sentences. I cannot come up with any way to make the running verb from sentence 1 also be a noun or an adjective in sentence 1, nor to make the running adjective from sentence 2 also be a noun or a verb in sentence 2.

It has been argued that you cannot use syntactic tests to determine the part of speech of a word, and that broader historic traditions of assigning these things allows them to be simultaneously multi-parted even when no syntactic test can find any such evidence. I do not pretend to understand those arguments, and I am not making them. I simply know no other way to do this than to apply syntactic tests.

Motivation for the Question

Many answers on this site allege that ‑ing words used in non-finite verb clauses are not only verbs alone as their clause usage proves already but also “actually” nouns when said clauses are used substantively and also adjectives or adverbs when those clauses are used as adjuncts modifying something else.

I believe they mistake the verb clause as a syntactic constituent replaceable by nouns or adjectives/adverbs for those respective lexical categories. I think only the clauses can function as substantives or modifiers, but each word’s lexical class is still that of a verb alone.

Here are some examples that seems to suggest otherwise:

As well as:

So we end up telling people that things belong to two distinct and oppositional lexical categories at the same time. This is extremely confusing, so I’d like to find evidence that it does or does not ever occur, or even can.

The Question, Again

So I again ask: is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word that’s simultaneously more than one single part of speech in that sentence (under the same parse and meaning)?

I’m particularly looking for whether an ‑ing word can ever be more than one of a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb at the same time in the same sentence under the same parse and meaning.

  • 3
    With all due respect (I mean it), may I raise one humble objection? Under the same parse and meaning, you say. Isn't that a bit of a self-refuting idea? We break down a sentence into its constituent parts, and label each of them as this or that part of speech; isn't that what ultimately lays the foundation of any given interpretation of that sentence? Isn't that where all fundamental meaning emerges from? From the syntactic interrelations we see between words?
    – m.a.a.
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 17:35
  • 4
    I don't see the point of the question; at the same time, as well as simultaneous, are meaningless phrases when applied to POS judgements on sentences. Time is a variable in the sentence production, but not in the parts of speech of its constituents. There are cases with simultaneous parses that use different POSs, like They listened to it, where listen to it may be parsed as IV + PP, and as TV + DO. That is simultaneous in the listener's parser, but it's not an identical parse. Commented May 10, 2017 at 18:25
  • 2
    Given one parse of one sentence in one pragmatic context, POS of any constituent are either unknown or else one of the tag set. Never two. That's what parsing means. If the POS changes, so does the parse. Commented May 10, 2017 at 20:15
  • 4
    Have you tried asking about this on the linguistics forum rather than hoping a linguist will appear here? linguistics.stackexchange.com
    – Tom22
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 22:28
  • 1
    It may appear obvious, and I am no grammarian but many -ing words can be interpreted as verb and/or adjective without substantially changing the meaning -- I was looking for the adjective form of 'persevere' (unrelated query) and found 'persevering' listed -- now it occurs to me that it might be the sort of example you were asking about, when used in sentences such as "he may not (yet) be proficient but he is persevering." It can be simultaneously read as verb and/or adjective with the same meaning. (Grammar gurus pl. resist de compulsion to correct any technical error in my comment!) Commented May 13, 2017 at 15:41

13 Answers 13


Is it ever possible for a sentence to have a word in it
that is simultaneously more than one single part of speech
in that sentence, under the same parse and meaning?

So, if a grammatical English sentence contains a word A, can A be more than one POS?

Parts of speech are grammatical terms and have varying meanings for different grammarians.
Let's rule out quantum superposition of POS, so no Schrödinger's Gerund that's noun and verb.

There certainly are sentences where it's impossible to tell which of several possible categories a word falls into, like the first sentence below, where exhausted can be either a predicate adjective, as in the second sentence, or part of a passive construction, like the third one.

  • I was exhausted.
  • I was exhausted and the bed was soft; we suited each other well.
  • I was exhausted by the irritable conversation and left early.

But that's not "in the same sentence". In the first sentence, there's just no way to know what the speaker intends about POS; it could be either one. And there's no way to know if one speaker might feel it was an adjective, but another speaker might think it was a participle. Or the same speaker might do both, to the same sentence, on different occasions.

So, the key word in the question is Simultaneously. And the answer to the question is No.

If anything in a parse changes from one POS to another, that makes it a different parse.
Thus, if A has two different POSs, they will occur in two different parses of the sentence.
And therefore the sentence can't simultaneously have two POSs in the same parse.

It is of course very easy to find sentences that have two interpretations; this is one way to make jokes, and certainly such ambiguity is common. But each interpretation represents a different parse. That's one of the purposes of parsing, in fact -- to distinguish ambiguous sentences and make their differences distinct. But that doesn't mean they're simultaneous, in any sense.

  • 1
    Afterthought: Well, maybe in one sense they could be simultaneous. In a really good joke, told by a really good comedian, with really great timing, the two senses might be simultaneous, and therefore so would the parses and their POSs. But a lot would depend on the crowd. Commented May 17, 2017 at 18:11
  • Ah, but that would be based on the comedian being able to say two sentences with one utterance, though, maybe. There wouldn't be one proposition there ... I like your answer (for what that's worth!) +1. And I do think it does 'a lot of good explaining it again'. Commented May 17, 2017 at 21:10
  • @JohnLawler - How about a sentence like: "Your answer is quite expert, which I am not." In the first clause 'expert' is a predicate adjective, in the second it seems to be a noun, but maybe it is also a pred adj. Another thought is that subordinate conjunctions as in: 'The man, who is wearing the funny hat, is the chef,' seem to be both a pronoun and a conjunction. I would love to hear what you have to say about this. Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 22:05
  • @JohnLawler I've also answered this question, and added comments about the generally accepted idea that participles and infinitives become nouns when used as subjects or objects, but I think this idea is incorrect. Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 22:20


There are constructions called zeugmas (after Greek ζεῦγμα, 'a yoking') where a word or phrase is intentionally made to apply to two or more others in a sentence despite functioning differently for each. The horde of words in English that can function as various parts of speech mean that zeugmas can be created where a single word simultaneously acts as two separate parts of speech.

@DavePhD had a particularly nice one in his reply

She is and runs fast.[adj.; adv.]

that could also be reworked into the still stranger

She is but stands fast.[adj.; adv.]

The doubled, incompatible, but grammatically functional senses of the word—usually requiring a double-take to figure out—are the appeal of the rhetorical device. It's simple enough to create such expressions using -ing words:

He is and likes running.[v.; n.]

They are and enjoy knitting.[v.; n.]

although anything creative is likely to be rather awkward:

He's being and is a hit.[v.; n.]

He was, has, and eats standing.[v.; n.; adv.]


and No

If you consider the doubled parts of speech in those zeugmas irrelevant because they're different 'meanings'... well, as Mr Yeats pointed out in his post, nouns and verbs are definitionally different "meanings". A noun used as a verb may intend act as (a) ~ ("man/crew/staff"), act like (a) ~ ("cat/horse/slut/fool around"), make (a) ~ ("sound/peep/bridge"), use (a) ~ ("hammer/canvass/google"), provide (a) ~ ("water/house/board"), &c. A verb used as a noun may intend an instance of ~ ("a run/try/fuck") or several instances of ~ ("a beat/pulse/record"), something that ~ ("a shoot/hit/fuck"), &c. They'll all be slightly different as a matter of course.

If you exclude any such form of doubled meaning, the only form of word that could work as a verb and noun simultaneously would be verbal forms.

It [sic] isn’t also a noun in either of them. Just because running bulls is the subject of sentence 1 doesn’t mean that running is a noun; it can’t be a noun or it wouldn’t be able to take a direct object like is happening there. Only transitive verbs take direct objects; nouns never do.

If you peremptorily define your opponents' contention out of existence, of course, it is impossible for them, me, or anyone else to continue to argue their case.


and Maybe

You can rest there and be content that everyone who disagrees with you is making some form of a category error. Ambiguity between adj. and adv. senses of participles could be dealt with by similar definitional adjustments, like Aml's "adjectives-being-used-adverbially" in his reply to DavidPhD's post.

I'd think it should be unsettling that you're just shifting definitions out from under your opponents. It certainly seems odd you'd put up a 500 point bounty just to hear how right you are. The actual definition of noun

A word used as the name or designation of a person, place, or thing; the class or category of such words...

and verb

That part of speech by which an assertion is made, or which serves to connect a subject with a predicate.

don't remotely support your contention that there is a magical bright line between the "noun" in "I like eating" and the "verb-in-a-noun-phrase" in "I like eating bacon". In fact, they don't support the idea that either "eating" is a verb at all, let alone universally.

The essential nature of the gerund in Latin—and, by extension for many grammarians, its -ing equivalents in English—is that it is a noun which retains the verb-like regimen (taking adverbs, objects, &c.) of its origin. RaceYouAnytime says as much both with his examples and his research describing the way generic English learners intuitively approach this structure. Aml claims to agree with you completely, but still understood your "running" as a noun with an object. Both historically (Latin and Old English's grammatical suffixes make verbals' noun status much more emphatic) and popularly, that's exactly how gerunds are approached.

You can absolutely define away your opponents' points. It doesn't really make them 'wrong' in any meaningful sense, though. You've just redefined 'noun' and 'verb' into something they and most other English speakers don't intend. You shouldn't expect such arguments to be convincing to them or anyone who doesn't share your specialized definition of these terms.

It's not that I think you're wrong on the basis of modern linguistic processing. It's just that no one is 'right' here. You're using a separate definition of noun and verb from theirs and you're just talking past each other. Buy 'em a beer and change the subject. They can suffer in the Hell of Poor Grammatical Understanding in the afterlife of your choosing.

For myself, as a side note, looking at both sides from the outside, I don't see the analytical benefit in calling "eating" a verb-in-a-one-word-noun-phrase instead of just treating it as a noun and saying verbal nouns can take objects. That approach seems less complicated in analytic languages and simply correct in synthetic ones.

  • In "Whether he eats is more important than when he eats", do you consider whether and when to be nouns? How about in its reduced form, "Whether is more important than when"? Surely not even a colorless green whether is more important than a furiously dreaming when, now is it? I'm pretty sure the ungrammaticality of that last question provides the answers to the earlier two. What good purpose does confusing subjects with nouns serve?
    – tchrist
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 18:35
  • 1
    I would consider them wh-words in both cases, and representing clauses in both cases. Rather like Ross's rule of "Sluicing", which produces sentences like He's going to give us some old questions on the exam, but which ones isn't clear, where a plural subject which ones agrees with a singular subject isn't clear. Commented May 16, 2017 at 22:46
  • @JohnLawler Tchrist, But "which ones", being a clause, a deceased version of "which ones he's going to give us", isn't really plural, is it? Even though it looks like a normal noun phrase in the sense of a phrase headed by a noun (whereas in reality, it's a clause headed by a missing predicate). Commented May 17, 2017 at 20:47
  • 1
    Well, yeah. But it looks very suspicious, and lots of people don't find that kind of description satisfying. So they make up their own rule. Sic transit lingua mundi. Commented May 17, 2017 at 20:50

How about "splashing is forbidden?" Splashing seems to function as either a noun or a verb.

It could be modified by an adverb to fit the verb test:

Loudly splashing is forbidden.

Or it could be modified with an adjective to fit the noun test:

That loud splashing is forbidden.

A psycholinguistic perspective

Ultimately, to address the meat of the question, I don't believe that a word can truly function as multiple parts of speech with the same meaning and parse. It's important to consider how a reader perceives the parts of the sentence.

Studies of language acquisition in young children indicate that gerunds, or words ending with -ing generally, tend to be comprehended as two separate lexical units. An example lies in a study of 15-month-olds by Toben Mintz:

Taken together, the experiments in this study demonstrate that English-learning 15-month-olds represent the suffix -ing as a discrete unit. Thus, although previous experiments failed to find evidence that 15-month-olds have acquired morphosyntactic dependencies involving -ing (Santelmann and Jusczyk, 1998), infants may nevertheless be in the process of learning these dependencies at this age. Specifically, having a discrete representation of an affix allows infants to notice dependencies between that affix and other forms.


The experiments reported here demonstrate that English-learning 15-month-olds represent -ing as a distinct form. When processing novel words that end in -ing, they segment the suffix from the stem. This allows them to notice morphosyntactic and morphosemantic patterns that involve that form, and that will form a part of their acquired grammatical knowledge

  • Mintz, Toben H. "The segmentation of sub-lexical morphemes in English-learning 15-month-olds." Frontiers in Psychology

This conclusion is supported to varying degrees by other studies of language acquisition. See also:

  • Pliatsikas, Christos; Wheeldon, Linda; Lahiri, Aditi; Hansen, Peter C. "Processing of zero-derived words in English: An fMRI investigation" Neuropsychologia 53 (2014) 47–53

By this logic, one could argue that a gerund functions as two parts of speech by virtue of being processed first as a verb and then as a noun. In the sentence, "I enjoy running," a young child processes "run" first, with "-ing" acting as a modifying unit. In this sense, it's not unlike verbs in infinitive form. "To run is fun." Here, we're comfortable calling "run" a verb and "to run" a noun clause. "Run" can still be treated as a verb -- it is free to operate on an object or be modified by an adverb. "To run races quickly is fun."

However, the case of infinitives also illustrates an important distinction between nouns and noun clauses. Even though "To run" is a noun clause, it doesn't have the same flexibility as a typical noun. It cannot be modified by an adjective or be made countable.

Given that early processing of gerunds tends to treat them as two separate lexical units, there seems to be an implication that the parsing occurs twice by young children as they learn the function of the phrase. This notion is confirmed in another notable study approaching the question from a psycholinguistic angle:

The abstract can be found here:

Among other things, Kemp et al. discuss the level of computation required to process phrases with ambiguous function as measured by response time, a common method in psycholinguistic research. Some passages seem highly relevant to how we mentally parse these parts of speech:

Laboratory studies confirm that having to resolve a word’s grammatical category can delay reading time, in such phrases as She saw her duck and chickens vs. She saw her duck and stumble (e.g., Boland, 1997).

The study and others cited in it also conclude that orthographic suffixes, like -ing, provide clues as to the part of speech of a word, even when used as suffixes in "fake words" where research participants were asked to identify the part of speech of made up words with differing orthographic endings. The use of segmented lexical clues to determine a part of speech parallels the earlier mentioned research related to how children process words like "splashing." It is parsed in two parts, first as a verb, but its ultimate function similar to a noun clause doesn't imply that it is in itself two parts of speech at once.

  • 4
    I think this is close to the heart of the matter. It does seem that when you apply the adjective to show it’s a noun it is now no longer a verb, and when you apply the adverb to show it’s a verb it is now no longer a noun. Perhaps this is like Schrödinger's cat: as soon as you test it, its quantum superposition collapses and you’re left with a dead part of speech. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:39
  • 1
    Yes, this is a common kind of example, but the usual counter-argument is that it cannot be modified with an adverb and an adjective at the same time (or an adverb and a determiner at the same time, or an adjective and a direct object at the same time). We cannot say "That loudly splashing" to mean "that loud splashing" or "loud blowing trumpets is annoying" to mean "loudly blowing trumpets is annoying".
    – herisson
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:40
  • @sumelic: Loudly splashing is still a noun phrase. Case solved. These Parts of Speech lexical categories are simplistic anyway. Language is inherently underspecific. Since you are drawing parallels to hard science, I would like to point you to the Halting Problem and Goedel's Completeness and Incompleteness Theorems. I think ambiguity can be often avoided to a degree by using the concrete noun that is entailed by the abstract "splash" (verb or noun), ie. noise or water.
    – vectorious
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 3:40
  • It's more that when it's a noun you can modify it with an adjective and when its a verb you can modify it with an adverb. But because these are homophonous in your case, it isn't so easy to see. Stick an object on the verb splash and it will suddenly become clear. "Sudden splashing the water is forbidden" <--- That's definitely ungrammatical. "Suddenly splashing the water" <-- That's grammatical. Similarly "The sudden splashing of the water is forbidden" (grammatical) versus "The suddenly splashing of the water is forbidden" (ungrammatical). Commented May 9, 2017 at 10:51

Since the same words can be adjectives and adverbs, sentences could be constructed where the word modifies a noun and a verb:

She is and runs fast.

While others cheat, my children are and play fair.

In Yellowstone National Park, bison roam, and truly are, free.

  • These adverbs are merely adjectives being used adverbially. Their POS is adjective, but the phrase type is 'adverbial' when applied to the verb, (but not to the copula; a tricky bit of coordination). Even if they ended in '-ly', their deeper function is still as adjective, but applied to the verb rather than the subject.
    – AmI
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 21:01
  • @Aml is not only wrong*: there's an entire rhetorical device based upon such constructions. Dr Dave's first example is particularly apropos. It's not until the second or third read-through that you realize the needless and awkward duplication resolves nicely if it's intended as an aspersion to her chastity.
    – lly
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 12:48
  • * Or tautological: fast in the first example is absolutely hovering ambiguously between the word's adjectival and adverbial senses. If that resolves merely because we opt to call the adverb an "adverbial adjective applied to the verb"... well, that avoids having a word functioning as two parts of speech simultaneously, by only by violence to the terminology being employed.
    – lly
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 12:52
  • @lly The first sentence doesn't have to be about her chastity. She's a multifaceted athlete who excels at track and swimming. She runs, and general is, fast.
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:07
  • Pretty much has to. "Being generally fast" in a literal sense is simply duplicative of "generally running fast", leaving the sentence awkward in the same way "She is both fast and not slow" is. They only 'work' if the figurative senses are intended.
    – lly
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:29

"The window was broken by John."

It doesn't seem simple to me to demonstrate that "broken" in this sentence is not simultaneously a verb and an adjective.


Participles are one of the classic areas of dispute about part-of-speech categories. I’m not qualified to give a summary of the overall state of linguistic opinion about this area, but my impression as an amateur is that the analysis of participles is still somewhat unsettled.

I'm using Björn Lundquist's "The Category of Participles" (2013) as an important source for this answer.

In general, participles behave in some ways like adjectives, and in some ways like verbs. Lundquist quotes a definition from David Crystal (1991):

Participle: "a word derived from a verb and used as an adjective" (2)

There is another quote from Lundquist that I think is relevant:

Classifying participles as adjectives is quite pointless unless we have a theory about (lexical) categories. (6)

Overall, I think a truly satisfying answer to this question will have to be more theoretical than I can manage.

“Participial adjectives” are definitely adjectives, but they also are at least related to verbs

One type of participial words are so much like adjectives that, as far as I can tell, everyone agrees that they are adjectives. These are the “non-eventive” participles/participial adjectives.

It’s actually a bit difficult for me to think of ways in which non-eventive participles in English could be considered verbs, and I can’t recall encountering any explicit arguments in support of this position, so I won’t attempt to give much support for this. Here are just a few random ideas:

  • Most obviously, they are are generally built on roots that have indisputably verbal uses: “broken” has the same root as “breaks” in “The glass breaks.”

  • They can sort of take subjects, in “by” phrases or in compounds.

These arguments are kind of weak, I know, but participial adjectives are clearly more similar to verbs than most adjectives are.

Eventive participles are as far as I know classified as verbs by mainstream grammar, but it is difficult to find a definite test that distinguishes them from adjectives

It seems to me to be possible to make stronger arguments that eventive participles, which in mainstream linguistic analysis are often regarded as “verbal” participles because of the grammatical properties that they share with verbs, partake of the nature of adjectives. Lundquist in fact argues that all passive participles, both stative/resultive and eventive, are adjectives. As far as I can tell, he doesn't classify them as being simultaneously adjectives and verbs any more than nominalizations are simultaneously nouns and verbs. But if there are strong arguments for both "participles are verbs" and "participles are adjectives", saying that they can be both seems like an obvious possible conclusion (although that solution obviously is not without complications of its own).

General ways in which participles are more like adjectives than verbs: Lundquist notes morphology and distribution. Most of the morphological points are more relevant to languages with more inflection than English (e.g. gender agreement, like in Romance languages) but there are still some possible arguments from morphology.

  • Like adjectives, but unlike finite verb forms, participles are invariant for grammatical number and person.

  • In English, at least, participles cannot inflect for absolute tense in the way that finite verbs obligatorily do. The verb in “they run” is clearly present tense, while “They ran” is past tense. But the so-called “present participle” in a phrase like “the running team members” can be used in either past or present absolute tense contexts. It’s true that it has a kind of relative-tense component, in that it refers to people who were/are/will be running at the time the narration is dealing with, but this is a different type of tense from what we see in English finite verb forms.

Distribution: Eventive participles have very similar distribution to adjectives (as I said, this point is made by Lundquist). E.g. when used predicatively, there must be a linking verb like the copula "to be". Participles seem to be able to be coordinated with adjectives e.g. "I was nervous as hell and sweating bullets" (Beasts, Bullets, and Blood, by Christiaan). Participle and adjective phrases both can be used attributively; while some recognize a distinction in possible position (that adjectives may precede nouns, and participles cannot) this isn't a clear defining factor of adjectives, because there are words like asleep and awake that are commonly classified as adjectives but that cannot be used attributively at all, and other things aside from adjectives can come before nouns (e.g. articles, quantifiers, attributive noun phrases).

Candidate tests for differentiating adjectives and eventive participles all seem to have some flaws

There are some apparent ways in which eventive participles differ from the typical adjective. However, I don’t know of anything that eventive participles do that no adjectives do; there are a number of “weird” adjectives that show one or another of the grammatical traits usually associated with participles.

Direct Objects: participles can have them, but so can some adjectives

One of the typical ways in which participles seem to differ from adjectives is that eventive participles may (but not all do) take direct objects.

However, this is not a bright line for distinguishing participles from adjectives because many linguists recognize some types of transitive adjectives. See this Language Log post by Geoff Pullum: New transitive adjectives. “Worth” is the classic example, and the post additionally mentions “underweight,” “overweight”, “long” and “short” as adjectives that may take NP complements.

(Non) Gradability: a feature of all eventive participles, but also of some adjectives

One big thing that seems to set eventive participles apart from a “typical” adjective is the pretty much absolute grammatical impossibility of using eventive participles in a number of constructions that require “gradable” adjectives.

  • No eventive participle can take the superlative suffix "-er" or comparative suffix "-est", although this is not conclusive since there are plenty of adjectives that don't take these suffixes either, and the phonological structure of participles (most are more than one syllable) actually means it would be expected even if they are adjectives that they would not take these suffixes.

  • It seems that eventive participles can sometimes be acceptably modified by the comparative adverb "more" ("more sinned against than sinning", "more telling him than asking him", "the song was more shouted than sung") but this is also sometimes possible, at least colloquially, for verbs ("I guess we more cried, than talked." - "7 MONTHS BUT WHO’S COUNTING? I AM. I ALWAYS WILL BE." - Rockstar Ronan tumblr).

    I can't think of an example of a clearly eventive participle modified by the superlative adverb "most".

  • The adverb “very”, which normally can modify adjectives and adverbs but not finite verb forms, also doesn't seem acceptable before eventive participles. We cannot say things like “*He is very writing a book”.

  • Lundquist cites a paper "Matushansky, O. 2002. Tipping the scales: the syntax of scalarity in the complement of seem. Syntax 5.3: 219–276." that argues that gradability is also the origin of another restriction on the distribution of eventive participles: they cannot come after certain verbs such as "seem".

This prohibition is much more absolute than it is for most supposedly “ungradable” adjectives, like “perfect” or “unique”, which can in fact be used gradably because of the phenomenon of “coercion”, specifically “scalarity coercion”: basically, gradable use implies that these words should be interpreted as having a gradable meaning, even if their usual definitions are not gradable (Lundquist 4, citing Matushansky 2002).

However, there are some adjectives that seem as resistant, or at least nearly as resistant, to scalarity coercion as unambiguously eventive participles.

  • the word "former", which I think needs to be classified as an adjective.

    • The former president, A former tennis champion
    • *The very former president, *A very former tennis champion

    It’s true “former” is a weird adjective, since it was formed as a comparative of “foremost”/obsolete “form(e)”. However, I don’t think it can be considered a comparative in modern English (for one thing, it can form a -ly adverb “formerly”, which I don’t think is usual for comparative adjectives).

  • Some pre-posed participial adjectives:
    *a very running experiment
    *a very sleeping child
    *a very falling tile

    These are generally classified as adjectives because of their position preceding the noun. But we can see that they cannot be modified by “very”. This shows that adjectives can fail the “very” test. (An alternative viewpoint that also seems consistent to me would be to reject the classification of these words as adjectives. For an example of that perspective, see BillJ's answer to Mari-Lou's "running" question or "Another look at participles and adjectives in the English DP", by Tibor Laczkó (2001).)

  • Certain adjectives are hard to use with "seem" in certain contexts. The following example is reproduced in Lundquist (4):

    (12) a. This music seems nice/*choral.
    b. This problem seems insoluble/*mathematical. (from Matushansky 2002)

    People may have different acceptability judgements of the sentences above, but it’s at least evidence that adjectives don’t always pass the gradability tests that eventive participles always fail.

Even if it turns out that no other types of adjectives are quite as ungradable as participles, it’s not clear why gradability should be considered a defining feature of adjectives.

Summary: I think it is hard to identify syntactic tests that are completely sufficient for distinguishing participles from adjectives. On the other hand, "eventive participles" clearly also act like verbs in some respects and appear to be part of verbs' inflectional paradigms (which I think is relevant for part-of-speech classifications in some theories of grammar). Because of this, I do think the idea that these words are both adjectives and verbs has some intuitive appeal. However, a serious theory of part-of-speech classification needs to be based on a deeper level of analysis that I unfortunately cannot explain, because I am not sufficiently familiar with the science of syntax.

  • Thanks for looking into this and giving a good answer. I’m hoping that some our site’s other resident linguists — arm-chair or otherwise — will find time in the next couple of days to take a look at the matter too.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 19:17
  • There’s something curious about complement placement when an ‑ing word comes before the noun compared with when it comes after it. A machine for washing clothes is a clothes-washing machine not a ✶washing-clothes machine, just as the season for hunting deer is deer-hunting season not ✶hunting-deer season. A ring for fighting bulls is a bull-fighting ring not a ✶fighting-bull ring, yet an aquarium for Siamese fighting fish would seem to be a fighting-fish tank not a ✶fish-fighting tank — unless it were meant for them to fight, like in some hypothetical shark-fighting tank.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 21:54
  • 1
    You mention the very test and then cite the rather dubious claim that -ing words should be analysed as adjectives when occurring as attributive modifiers within nominals. The whole point of the exercise, it seems to me, is to to distinguish between parts of speech which have the same syntactic function. So presupposing the PoS because of the syntactic function is no good. Those counter-examples to the very test just show that those words are verbs and not adjectives!!! Commented May 8, 2017 at 15:15
  • @AraucariaMan: Well, Laczkó (2001) says that for some reason, the view that all pre-nominal "-ing" words are adjectives was common at the time he was writing. He argues against it; but I'm just saying that if someone does hold this viewpoint, these words are examples of adjectives that can't be modified by "very" acceptably.
    – herisson
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 15:27
  • @AraucariaMan I’m pretty sure that sometimes the -ing word in such NPs isn’t always the same thing, because some of them pass the predicate test but others fail it. Consider running water which passes the predicate test versus running shoes which fails it. Even if you can’t apply very to either, this still corresponds to the familiar paired scenario of having an adjective in the first case and an attributive noun in the second.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 16:36

To be really pedantic, the definition of a verb (for instance) is different from the definition of a noun, even if the same word is used, so at one level your intuition is correct.

As a practical matter, a given word can have all four uses, and the good old ubiquitous "fuck" does this quite nicely.

1) n. "Sometimes the fu*king you get isn't worth the f**king you get." (Meaning that some sexual relationships aren't worth the emotional price you wind up paying.)

2) v. "After f**king her all night he could barely see straight the next day."

3) adj. "What a f**king nightmare!"

4) adv. "Are you f**king serious?"

  • 1
    Those are in different sentences though: notice how you've labelled each with just one single part of speech. Can you create a sentence where you have to say that the same -ing word is not just an X but also a Y, where X and Y are from the set noun, verb, adjective, adverb?
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:29
  • Do you mean that a single instance of a word is both an adjective and a noun (or similar combination) simultaneously? Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:33
  • 1
    Yes, that's right. People are claiming that -ing words are both nouns and verbs, or both adjectives and verbs, and I don’t see how they think that so would like them to tell me. I think any example at all that a word can have two different parts of speech at once in the same sentence under the same parse and meaning would be an existence proof of their assertion.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:35
  • Who are those people?
    – vectorious
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 16:53
  • 1
    @vectorious “Those people” include many answers on this site alleging that -ing words used in non-finite verb clauses are not only verbs alone as their clause usage proves already but also “actually” nouns when said clauses are used substantively and also adjectives or adverbs when those clauses are used as adjuncts modifying something else. I believe they mistake the verb clause as a syntactic constituent replaceable by nouns or adjectives/adverbs for those respective lexical categories.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 17:52

From my experience, it strikes me that words which would ordinarily be (or be like) two parts of speech have been separated into different categories, thus creating "new" parts of speech. If I'm not incorrect, gerunds and verbal nouns might fit this category.


I love fishing.

Is fishing a gerund or a participle? I just feel lovely while I fish, because I love to fish.

I run holding scissors

Am I holding the scissors or are the scissors holding me? Physics will have told you that forces create counter forces. Hence, I run scissors that are in a hold, even if that's not the common interpretation.

Edit: Point in case, it's not "the fishing", and neither "to fish", which would be the respective definite noun or non-finite verb forms. One easy way out is to simply label such use as a different lexical category. Alternatively, the fact that the gerund form wasn't used with an article could be explained either by its verb characteristics, which doesn't make sense to me when it's the subject, or by the omission of the indefinite article as it's also observed in "I love fish". However, I think the latter form is overly simplistic, because it doesn't give much to go on, but that's a different topic (links to relevant questions elude me at the moment).

My personal take is that even "I fish" is ambiguous to a degree, because the verb is a verbalization (?) of the stronger noun. I find the difference between the noun and the nominalization of the verbalization of a noun (gerund) quite bizarre. The point is, if in "I love fishing" the common noun is not entailed, e.g. because the fish is not the ultimate goal of the action, than the word is misused. Still, it surely retains the meaning of a verb. So I can only conclude that if you want a clean separation of verbs and nouns, constructions like this would have to be avoided.

After all, "I " to say "I am called " sounds rather primitive, but it sure works in the right context. This is difficult to pinpoint because English is neither a pure analytic language nor purely synthetic.

I noticed a similar confusion in physics and programming. A number literal can be understood as a constant function without any arguments. A function f can be used as variable of it's results, e.g. the Time is introduced as variable parameter but can be an operator in higher physics.

  • 2
    Thanks. Isn't fishing there only a noun? I don't see how it's an adverb there. In the second sentence I don't understand your other use at all, but I'll think about it for a while.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 5:08
  • 2
    You can certainly have a sentence whose "official" syntax structure is ambiguous, even though the meaning is not significantly affected by the specific structure chosen to analyze the sentence. "-ing" words are particularly adept at introducing this ambiguity. But this does not mean that the word is simultaneously filling two syntactic roles, but rather that it can flit, a la quantum physics, between multiple roles, depending on the observer.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 12:10
  1. Running [of] bulls is easy. 'Running' is here a gerund, not a verb. It is a type of noun, as is an infinitive (cf. "To run bulls is easy.")

  2. [The] running bulls are dangerous. 'Running' is here an adjective at the surface level, but at a deeper level it is a verb (cf. "The bulls that are running are dangerous.")

When looking at a particular level, each 'word' has one and only one 'POS'; unless you consider ambiguous samples, where more than one POS is possible (but each interpretation still uses only one POS per word).

  • 1
    If it isn't a verb then how come bulls is its direct object? Also how come it wants adverbs like quickly if it's a noun? Nouns can't do that. But when you use a preposition you break its ability to do verb things. You do not seem to be able to ever show that an -ing word can be a noun and a verb at the same time.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 23:15
  • You are arguing that infinite verbs are still verbs. I am saying that they function as topics so they are nouns. 1. is SBC (subject be complement), not VBC. The optional [of] has no effect here. -ing words could be considered nouns and verbs at the same time (allowing Objects), but only at different levels of analysis (only one POS per parse).
    – AmI
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 23:30
  • 1
    Certainly non-finite verbs are still verbs: that's why they're called that. The direct object of running is bulls and so it must be a verb, for the DO test is one of the best we have for determining verbness. The entire clause is the subject, and its head is a verb. The of makes all the difference in the world, turning the verb into a noun. Nobody is arguing any of these points here.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 0:21
  • 'Running bulls' is not a clause, and 'running' is not a verb on its own. It is an active participle, and becomes part of a verb phrase when headed by an auxiliary. When naked (with or without DO), it can be a gerund; or it can be used like an adjective (as can the passive participle). You can just parse it as 'active participle' (G-part, etc.) and context can determine the phrase type. Its 'surface' POS is never 'verb' (*The bulls running.)
    – AmI
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 20:47
  • And 'of' affects 'bulls', not 'running'.
    – AmI
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 20:48

The very strange word galore must be seen as a quantifier. But it also has descriptive force: one wouldn't say 'There were mutilated corpses galore strewn across the field of battle'. So in 'There were pavilions galore covering the Crusaders' camp', 'galore' means 'many' 'colourful and splendid' [pavilions] and must also be in the adjective class.

Dictionaries are moving 'galore' from the adjective class to the determiner, but, while this shows progress, it is an inadequate corrective. Though they don't mention the 'splendour/attractive array' or the 'happy abundance' ('There were toffee apples galore') requirement, every example I've found demands this. 'There were pebbles galore on the beach' says a lot more than 'There were a lot of pebbles on the beach'.


I humbly submit.

These answers are quite expert, which I am not. - How's that? expert is both an adjective and a noun.

I've wondered about this question also. And it seems to me that subordinating conjunctions play a dual role, they seem to function as both pronouns and conjunctions at the same time.

The man, who is wearing a funny hat, is the chef. - who refers to the subject noun antecedent, and it also functions as a conjunction for the subordinate clause.

Regarding the aspects of your question regarding untensed verb forms, participles and infinitives, I find it very confusing for students, and in a general sense, to ever think of these as nouns. They are never nouns, they are always verbs. The confusion seems to arise because these forms can be used as subjects and objects, which inherently are things. Objects are always things but they are not always nouns.

The following sentences all have the form: The subject likes something. Their structure is S+V+OC, where the object role is taken by a non-finite verb form.

I like to eat. S+V+OC(vp: infinitive)

I like eating. S+V+OC(vp: present participle)

These first two are the most noun-like. The subject likes something. The next two also take this form but the verb forms used as object complements also behave more like verbs because they take an adverbial complement.

I like to eat at restaurants. S+V+OC(vp:inf+ac:pp)

I like eating with my friends. S+V+OC(vp:prt+ac:pp)

The prepositional phrases in the sentence complement have a direct relation to the verbs in the object complement, not to the main verb. The general semantic form is still the subject likes something (to eat in restaurants) but it might be better to represent this as the subject likes to do/doing something, just to show that these complemented forms are more verb-like. But even without a complement, as in the first two, the sentences are still about the action, about doing something.

By my lights, it makes very little sense to think of these verb forms as nouns. They are verb phrases that play the role of an object complement. They can also be the object of prepositions and can even take the other noun-like role in sentences, the subject.


TL/DR: The word concerning might be a 'true' case of simultaneity! Not an expert by any means, which is why I qualified that statement with 'might,' but I'll explain why I believe it actually is one in detail below.

Something which might qualify as a word that is/can be simultaneously two different parts of speech at once is the word 'concerning.' Not in the sense of 'something that's worrying or alarming,' but in the sense of 'about' or 'regarding*.'

*about that later...

Consider these sentences:

1a) "The meeting was called to address doubts concerning the new product."

1b) "I have doubts concerning the new product."

and contrast with these:

2a) "The meeting was called to address all questions that concern the new product."

2b) "My doubts concern the new product."

In the first pair of sentences, 'concerning' is most definitely a preposition - you could substitute 'about' or 'regarding' without changing the meaning at all. But, in the second pair of sentences, 'concern' is most definitely a verb. It is transitive, meaning it takes a direct object. That object is "the new product" in both 2a) and 2b). That is the same thing that was the object of the preposition in 1a) and 1b). Furthermore, 2b) has a relative clause: "that concern the new product."

So here is where I believe the "quantum superposition" (thanks, John Lawler, for suggesting the term! In this case, it's a "quantum superPREposition"!) comes in:

Try to differentiate the prepositional usages in the first pair of sentences from a hypothetical 3rd pair of sentences formed from the second pair by just changing the form of the verb:

3a) Reduce that relative clause: "all questions that concern X" becomes "all questions concerning X," in exactly the same way that "all the geese that swim on the lake" turns into "all the geese swimming in the lake." But, "swimming" doesn't turn into a preposition when the relative clause is reduced! It's still a form of the verb 'to swim.'

3b) "My doubts, some concerning the new product and others concerning yesterday's meeting, are numerous." Here, what was the main verb in 2b) has been moved inside a nominative absolute phrase modifying "doubts." You could still substitute the preposition 'about' here if you wanted, but I don't think that sounds as idiomatic:

*"My doubts, some about the new product and others about yesterday's meeting, are numerous." (possible, but maybe kind of awkward?)

While the same kind of sentence construction doesn't sound awkward if you swap out the ambiguous word with a transitive verb instead of a different preposition:

"The employees, some discussing the new product and others discussing yesterday's meeting, entered the conference room."

So, you can substitute a form of the verb 'to concern' for the preposition 'concerning' and not significantly change the meaning OR construction of a sentence. Now take another look at sentences 1a) and 1b): can you definitively say that 'concerning' there isn't a form of the verb 'to concern'?

While I would still classify it as a preposition (for example, if I were taking a multiple choice test), if someone proposed the counterargument that "No, it's actually a form of 'to concern,' and 'the new product' is the Direct Object (DO) not Object of Preposition (OP)," I would have no way of refuting that. There isn't any possible context at all that I can think of that would definitively exclude the transitive-verb sense when the preposition sense is intended, OR that would definitively exclude the preposition sense when the transitive-verb sense is intended. And, importantly, the meaning of the verb and preposition are exactly the same - you don't have to choose between them when interpreting the sentence.

So, if the two forms have the same meaning and are used in exactly the same kind of sentence structure, I would propose that they are the same, or at least entirely 'indifferentiable.' In quantum mechanics, this is exactly what the word "superposition" refers to: think of benzene and how its structure is a superposition (or resonance hybrid) of the two (simultaneous, not alternating) possible configurations of single and double bonds.

Therefore, the word concerning is simultaneously both a preposition and a verb (used as an adjective btw).

What's special about 'to concern'/'concerning' that sets it apart from 'to regard'/'regarding' (one might ask)? Well, this kind of 'quantum superposition' can't exist for 'regard' in the same way as it can for 'concern.' This is because the preposition "regarding" and the verb form have different meanings. Compare:

4a) "The employees had their doubts regarding the new product."


4b) "The employees, regarding the new product with suspicion, were nevertheless reluctant to voice their doubts aloud to the vice president."

The preposition means "about" while the verb means "to look at or consider," so unlike with concern, the present participle of "regard" doesn't have the same meaning as the preposition that looks the same as it. Only one meaning will fit - no simultaneity.


I think the following example may also be of some use here:

"One day, we will all be f***ing robots."

This sentence can mean two completely different things based on how we use the operative word "f***ing."

If it is used as an adjective, the sentence implies that at some point in the future, humans will all have taken on the form of a robot.

However, if the word is used or read as a verb, then the point being made by the sentence is completely different, and implies that we will all be have sexual relations with robots at some point in the future.

The word itself is very much a slang term and as such is used in many different roles as a POS, but it nonetheless functions as both adjective and verb, albeit not at the exact same time. It can really only mean one or the other to one person, but two people reading it at the exact same time could take it to mean two different things, so I do think this is a noteworthy example, worth including within this discussion.

  • 3
    But those interpretations would not be from the same parse.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 21:13
  • 1
    What Jim means is that your sentence could be read 2 different ways, with different uses of the word (not same time) . But that does not answer the question or even provide a valid example. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 22:04
  • The OP wasn't looking for ambiguity, even less mildly obscene at that. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 20:56
  • You could also try - 'I hate smelling your farts stink." Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 6:08

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