I saw this sentence somewhere. I know it’s right, but I can’t explain why to use the -ing form here twice:

There was no mistaking the smell. Burning. There was a fire somewhere.

  • There are two sentences and a fragment here. Feb 24 '18 at 22:55

Think of another way of saying the same thing. So: “there was no doubt about the smell.”. I do not think you would have a problem with that. Perhaps you may feel the need to suggest that “there was no doubt” is somehow short for “there was no <room for> doubt..”. But I do not think anyone actually inserts those two word silently as she listens.

In the same way, mistaking is a noun, just as doubt is. It is a type of verbal noun, often called a ‘gerund’. In this case, it is active and transitive. So, even though it is a kind of noun, it can have the word smell as its object.

Burning is also a verbal noun. In this context it is intransitive: it has no object. The writer could have written “the smell of burning. But this would have lost the immediate striking effect. S/he does this by throwing the idea of burning at you straight after the idea of smell. As before, we do not find ourselves having to make up extra phrases in our heads (such as: ‘... of something burning’). The juxtaposition is sufficient.

If I were editing, I might have suggested a full colon after ‘smell’ rather than a full stop.

  • True...I only saw the "ing" ending at first. Feb 24 '18 at 21:17
  • I learned English as a foreign language that is why I have problems with understanding the "burning" issue. I was told you can´t do that at all. It´s not a full sentence and so on.... Feb 24 '18 at 21:19
  • In essays that maybe possible to place emphasis
    – QuIcKmAtHs
    Feb 25 '18 at 0:27
  • @MarcinNowak There is a paradox about this, which you will recognise in your home language. Language teachers, whether in schools or in colleges for language learners, teach according to formal rules: they must. These rules will tend to apply in formal contexts, such as journalism, discursive writing and official correspondence. But these formal structures can be loosened up in poetry, oratory and casual conversation. This looser use of grammar is much harder to master for non-native users unless they live among native speakers and use and hear the language on a daily basis.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 25 '18 at 7:20

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