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I'm trying to understand the grammar of this sentence:

I like climbing mountains.

Here's what I've got so far:

  • "I" is the subject
  • "like" is the verb
  • I believe "climbing" is a participle
  • Maybe "mountains" is the direct object?

Is that right? And are "climbing" and "mountains" both acting as nouns? Or is the noun "climbing mountains" and "climbing" is an adjective? I'm getting lost. Can anyone clarify this for me?

  • 1
    Grammatically, you can consider climbing to be some kind of a noun adjunct or adjective that describes mountain (like chicken in chicken soup or climbing in climbing wall), but the more natural interpretation would be to take climbing as a verb. – Lawrence Jan 29 '18 at 1:17
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    Never liked mountains which climb.... – rackandboneman Jan 29 '18 at 11:36
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    "mountains" is a noun. "climbing mountains" is the direct object. "climbing" is either a participle or a gerund, depending on the interpretation of the sentence. – Greg Lee Jan 30 '18 at 1:24
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tl;dr: The part of speech of mountains is here a noun. It’s the direct object of the verb climbing.


How we know that climbing is a verb, though, is more work. That’s because it might instead be a noun or an adjective. It’s a verb as just mentioned, but let’s look at all three cases just to make sure.

We’ll assume that for parts of speech, your possible choices are one of noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Parts of speech like conjunction, preposition, determiner, interjection, and such aren’t really relevant here.

Note that parts of speech can only be single words. Things like subject, predicate, and direct object are not parts of speech. They are syntactic constituents, which can be more than one word.

Climbing as an adjective: “climbing roses”

In

  1. I like climbing roses.

The word roses is the direct object, and it is here being modified by the adjective climbing. You can tell it’s an adjective not a noun adjunct because it passes the predicate test:

  • The roses are climbing (ones). [TRUE]

You know it isn't a verb here because you can't flip to the infinitive without a change in meaning:

  • I like to climb roses. [FALSE]

You can also tell it’s not a verb because adding an adverb of manner to one side means something totally different from what you get adding it to the other side:

  • I like quickly climbing roses. [adjective meaning]
  • I like climbing roses quickly. [verb meaning]

If climbing had been a verb, you would have been able to move quickly without changing the meaning. But you can’t.

Climbing as a noun: “climbing gyms”

In

  1. I like climbing gyms.

Here now gyms is the direct object of like, but climbing has now become a noun modifying gyms, not an adjective modifying gyms. You can tell this because it fails the predicate test:

  • The gyms are climbing. [FALSE]

Therefore these are gyms that are for climbing, and so climbing is here a noun. You can think of climbing-gyms as a compound noun.

The stress has also shifted.

You know it's a noun because you can add other customary components of a noun phrase like quantifiers and adjectives:

  • I like some easy climbing gyms.

Because you can do that, you know it’s not a verb there.

Climbing as a verb: “climbing mountains”

In

  1. I like climbing mountains.

The direct object of the verb like is the entire non-finite verb phrase “climbing mountains”, where mountains is in turn the direct object of the non-finite verb climbing. Since only verbs can have direct objects and mountains is the direct object of climbing, that means that climbing must be being used as a verb here.

Verbs not only take objects, they can also take adverbs of manner. So for example:

  • I like quickly climbing mountains.
  • I like climbing mountains quickly.

Because you can freely move quickly and the two sentences above still mean the same thing, you know that quickly is modifying climbing as a verb. If it were doing so as an adjective, you would not be able to move quickly around like that without shifting the meaning.

In other words, if they had meant different things after adverbial movement, then these would just be mountains that happened to be quickly climbing ones, like quickly climbing roses. But since that’s not what this means, it’s a verb.

Again, the entire verb phrase, not any single word, is the direct object of like, but climbing is clearly a verb because only verbs take direct objects and relocatable adverbs of manner in this fashion.

In this instance, you can be sure it's a verb because you can flip it from the one sort of non-finite verb phrase to the other kind without any change in meaning:

  • I like to climb mountains.
  • I like to quickly climb mountains.
  • I like to climb mountains quickly.

Since that means the same thing, both climbing and to climb are verbs here.


Some posters have suggested that this instance of climbing is a noun. It can’t be, as I’ve just demonstrated that it has a direct object, which only a verb can have.

But if you still aren’t convinced, let’s try to do noun-things to this would-be noun. If it were actually a noun, you would be able to modify it with an adjective like dangerous.

  • I like ✻dangerous climbing mountains. [UNGRAMMATICAL]

That shows that climbing is not a noun here, since the result is ungrammatical when you try to add an adjective to it.

It’s a verb. Just a verb: not a noun, not an adjective.


postscript

I’m just glad you didn’t ask what climbing was in

  1. I like climbing climbing mountain roses climbing mountain climbing gyms.

For up that wall climb climbing buffalo climbing. :)

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    +1 for the thorough explanation (but an emphatic +1 for the postscript) – HotelCalifornia Jan 29 '18 at 4:43
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    Isn't your second example also adjectival -- "climbing gyms"? "Climbing" simply describes the type of gym. Frankly I can't think of any sentence which would just use "climbing" by itself as a noun. Climb, yes; climbing, not. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Jan 29 '18 at 14:44
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas No, climbing is a noun in climbing gyms because the gyms are gyms for climbing; they aren't themselves actually climbing. It's like how running shoes has a noun modifying a noun, but running water has an adjective doing so. People do consider climbing a sport; you can add adjectives to it and have beginning climbing, easy climbing, advanced climbing, etc., and because adjectives can't modify other adjectives we know that climbing can be, and is there, a noun. – tchrist Jan 29 '18 at 14:47
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    An excellent explanation. But I want to detect something, why couldn’t we think of it this way; Consider climbing as an adjective: I like the mountains that are specifically used for climbing. So we could write the sentence: I like climbing mountains? @tchrist – Bavyan Yaldo Jan 29 '18 at 23:33
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    @BavyanYaldo Sure, but nobody would know you meant. :) The verbal collocation is far too common for anyone ever to think of anything else. Say if you must: "I like mountains made for climbing" or some such thing. – tchrist Jan 29 '18 at 23:34
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You're asking multiple questions about this sentence:

I like climbing mountains.

So I'll try and tackle them one by one.

(1) In the title, you ask about the part of speech of mountains.

These are parts of speech in English:

noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, determiner, conjunction, interjection

The suffix -s of mountains can only be attached to a noun or a verb. Since the word mountain here is used to identify any of a class of people, places, or things and is not used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, it is a noun.

(2) Is climbing a participle?

There's this ongoing confusion as to whether to call an -ing form a present participle or a gerund or even a gerund-participle. Resolving this confusion alone deserves a separate question, and it's not even clear whether there's a consensus among grammarians on this matter. Therefore, it's not really possible here to determine which term is the right one.

But one thing is clear: None of these terms is a part of speech. The part of speech of climbing is a verb, because it takes mountains as a direct object, which answers the following question:

(3) Is mountains the direct object of climbing? Yes.

(4) Are climbing and mountains both acting as nouns? Or is climbing mountains a noun and climbing an adjective?

The only supposed problem of treating climbing as a verb is that the verb like seems to take climbing as a complement. But this is an illusion. It's not climbing that the verb like takes as a complement; it's climbing mountains as a whole. Now, climbing mountains cannot be any part of speech, because it's not a word but a clause consisting of a verb (climbing) and its direct object (mountains).

So, it's better to think of -ing as a tool to make the clause climb mountains function as a complement of the verb like. This point becomes clear when we consider this pair side by side:

I like climbing mountains.

I like climbing.

In the latter, climbing should be categorized not as a verb but as a noun.

  • +1 for a short but solid analysis not only leading directly to the correct answer but also dispelling the whole "gerund clause" distraction and presenting a novel suggestion for how to think of these as a "tool" for creating suitable substantive-standins for a verb's arguments. – tchrist Jan 31 '18 at 2:27
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Speaking of parts of speech, we have

  • "I" is a personal pronoun
  • "like" is a (transitive) verb
  • "climbing" is a noun (specifically, the gerund of to climb)
  • "mountains" is a noun
  • one may consider the whole gerund phrase "climbing mountains" as a noun

Regarding their syntactic functions

  • "I" is the subject
  • "like" is the predicate
  • "climbing mountains" is the (direct) object, which here comes in the shape of a gerund phrase; within that, "mountains" is the gerund complement (sometimes also called the gerund object because it would be the object if the gerund were a verb: "... climb mountains" )
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    Climbing is not a noun. It is a verb. That's the only way it can have a direct object of mountains. Only verbs have direct objects, never nouns. If it were a noun you could add adjectives like dangerous to it, and you cannot. “I like ✻dangerous climbing mountains" is ungrammatical. Therefore climbing is not a noun. Mountains is, however. Notice you can add a movable adverb of manner — like quickly — to either side of that verb phrase, thus proving it a verb phrase not a noun phrase. The head of that VP is the verb climbing. – tchrist Jan 29 '18 at 22:36
  • @tchrist According to, uh, you, a gerund is both a verb and a noun. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jan 29 '18 at 23:58
  • @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft My answer there needs work; I've deleted it till I can fix it. This whole simultaneity thing is exactly why I asked this question and received this definitive answer. – tchrist Jan 30 '18 at 0:47

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