Gerunds and present participles happen to look exactly the same in English, the first acting as a noun and the second as either an adjective, a verb denoting continuous action, or introducing a participle clause. When adding a descriptive word to them, should gerunds get adjectives and participles adverbs, even though they're both created from a verb? Example:

Though Khorrl didn't consider himself a great judge of attractiveness, especially in other species, it was plain enough to him that Zammzt's face was far from noteworthy. The drow was simply too ordinary looking. Thomas A. Reid, Insurrection, War of the Spider Queen book II, p. 42

I cannot decide whether or not too ordinary looking is a gerund or not. I am assuming it is correct, but if it was, shouldn't I be able to say 'a looking', the same way as one can say e.g. 'a meeting'? If the latter, wouldn't 'too ordinarily looking' be correct? That just sounds wrong, through, as though he stared at something in a boring way.

My apologies if this is a dumb question.

  • "The drow was simply too ordinary looking" = a very ordinary-looking drow. "...he stared at something in a boring way". The -ing forms here are present participles. May 28, 2017 at 12:23
  • When we say 'Seeing is believing,' we use two gerunds. That does not mean a seeing is a believing. May 28, 2017 at 12:42
  • @mahmudkoya Yes, that is how I read it, naturally, but then I started trying to understand the grammar of the sentence and couldn't quite figure out out; in other words, I wasn't able to explain to myself why it was correct.
    – Canned Man
    May 28, 2017 at 13:07
  • I don't think it's got anything to do with gerunds. I'd say that "ordinary-looking" is a verb-centred compound adjective. Others include "easy-going", "hard-working", "good-looking" and so on.
    – BillJ
    May 28, 2017 at 13:42
  • I don't think it's got anything to do with gerunds. I'd say that "ordinary-looking" is a verb-centred compound adjective: see here link .Other verb-based compound adjectives include "easy-going", "hard-working", "good-looking".
    – BillJ
    May 28, 2017 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


"looking" is definitely a present participle in this context

In the context of "The drow was simply too ordinary looking", the word "looking" is definitely a present participle, not a gerund, assuming we're working in a grammatical tradition that distinguishes between these two categories. Gerunds are "nouny" and present participles are "adjective-y" and "ordinary looking" in this context functions more like an adjective than like a noun: it's describing how the drow looks.

present participles can be "modified" by more than just adverbs

It's an oversimplification to think that a participle can only be "modified by" or associated with adverbs. Participles are (or at least are derived from) verbs, and verbs can be associated with many types of words, not only adverbs.

If the verb the participle is based on can be associated with other types of words, usually the participle can too. For example, "cake" is a noun; the verb "eat" can be followed by "cake" in a sentence like "He eats cake", and the participle "eating" can be associated with the noun (not adverb) "cake" in a sentence like "A child eating cake sat at the table". As BillJ mentions in the comments, there are also "compound adjectives" that can be made by sticking an appropriate word before a participle, e.g. "a cake-eating child". (I won't get into the details of compound adjective formation because I don't know them, and this topic seems tangential to your question.)

in particular, the verb "look" and its participle "looking" can take an adjective as a complement

The verb "look" can function as a "linking verb" that takes an adjective complement. You would say, and correctly so, "The drow looks ordinary" and not "The drow looks ordinarily".

It's equally appropriate to use "ordinary" with the participle "looking". (Although if "ordinary looking" is considered a compound, as BillJ suggests, it might be better to hyphenate it in the same way as we hyphenate "cake-eater": "ordinary-looking". The hyphenated form can be found online at Oxford Dictionaries.)

"Looking" can be modified by an adverbial adjunct, but as far as I know, it cannot take an adverb for a complement

As far as I know, there are no circumstances where the verb "looking" takes an adverb as its complement, but like any other verb it can be modified by an adverbial adjunct.

The characteristic feature of an "adjunct" is that when it is removed, the sentence should still make sense. So you can say "He ordinarily looks better than an average drow," where "ordinarily" is an adverbial adjunct and "better than this" is the complement of "looks"; the sentence still makes sense if the adjunct is removed ("He looks better than an average drow").

A sentence like "He ordinarily looks" or "He looks ordinarily" is problematic for the same reason that "He looks" is problematic: the verb "looks" lacks a complement, which often sounds unnatural (it can be acceptable in some contexts where it's possible to interpret it as an elision of a longer expression).

  • I would assume then, based on your final paragraph, that if one chose to use the adverb (ordinarily), the verb would require completion by adding an extra clause, eg "The drow ordinarily looks at something", though I don't know how to analyse that last part. Without that added clause, "ordinarily" would mean something like "under normal circumstances" or "usually", but what kind of adverb is that?
    – Canned Man
    Jun 27, 2017 at 22:32
  • A different question needs to be asked too: I've understood gerunds (ie gerundives) to be the adjective form of the verb, whilst gerundiums are the noun form. Could you clarify? Is this a grammatical differentiation that is not relevant to English?
    – Canned Man
    Jun 27, 2017 at 22:36
  • @CannedMan: When used with the verb "looking", my understanding is that "ordinarily" would be an adverbial adjunct. I've edited my answer to add a section about this. I've never heard "gerund" used that way, but it might be a tradition I'm not familar with. (I am not familar with the meaning of "gerundive"). If you call the adjective form of the verb a "gerund(ive)", what would the name "present participle" be used for? Only for the form that is used with a form of "be" to construct the progressive?
    – herisson
    Jun 27, 2017 at 22:45
  • @CannedMan: I just read a little bit about it, and it looks to me like the "gerundive" is a Latin verb form that is used as an adjective. I haven't found any Latin grammars that call verbal adjectives "gerunds," although perhaps some people conflate the terminology. I don't see any use for the concept of a "gerundive" (as distinct from a present participle) in English.
    – herisson
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:00


The root of your problem is that looking (like most English verbs related to sensing) has two related but separate senses: the action itself (n) or characterized by the action (adj) and seeming a certain way (adj).

I think you have a good handle on understanding whether the noun sense is intended. (Although you seem to not realize that the action of looking is almost always uncountable since we have plenty of other words to use for a specific instance of the action of looking.)

What's confusing you seems to be the difference between the two adjectival senses. You can work it out pretty easily by whether it's modified by an adverb.

An ordinarily looking drow

is a drow that is characterized by the action of looking around itself. At the moment, it is looking around in an ordinary manner, as it is wont to do.

An ordinary-looking drow

is a drow that looks to other people like an ordinary and nondescript member of its species.

  • 1
    "Ordinary-looking" is a single lexeme, a verb-centred compound adjective.
    – BillJ
    May 28, 2017 at 13:58
  • @BillJ: Horsepucky. It's an adjective modifying another adjective, as already sourced, without a verb in sight. Adding more jargon isn't going to help the kid with the difficulties caused by the jargon he's already suffering from.
    – lly
    May 28, 2017 at 14:01
  • Nonsense!, it's not a syntactic construction, but a compound word. Look here: link
    – BillJ
    May 28, 2017 at 14:02
  • So a modified adjective got its own entry. That doesn't actually provide evidence to your point that the adjective I already sourced doesn't exist or is secretly a double-plus-secret verb masquerading as an adjective. It's absolutely a syntactic construction that just became common enough to be a pat phrase.
    – lly
    May 28, 2017 at 14:04
  • It's no different to other lexicalised verb-centred compound adjectives like "good-looking" or "easy-going". It's failure to realise this that is causing the OP such confusion. Btw, if it was a syntactic construction, it would be two separate words, not a single hyphenated one.
    – BillJ
    May 28, 2017 at 14:06

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