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The full context is below, but the basic question is: is the word spending in the following example really a gerund, as claimed by the University Challenge question-setters? My "best guess" would be that it is an example of a present participle or the progressive aspect.

Q: Give the single word gerund that completes the opening statement of Francis Bacon's essay 'Of Expense': 'Riches are for spending'.

Source: "Open University" Question, pre-2010

(In the original question, the word spending was missing and had to be determined.)

This question featured in a recent (April 2018) edition of the UK TV programme Have I Got News For You, quoting a question from the quiz programme University Challenge (because the guest host of the former – Jeremy Paxman – is also the regular presenter of the latter).

I correctly guessed that the missing word was spending, and then, working with the (perhaps simplistic) rule that "a gerund is a noun made from a verb" thought: is this really a gerund? In, for example, "This month's spending has increased", spending would, I believe, be correctly labelled as a gerund (spending acts as a noun; the amount of spending that occurred this month). In the above case, however, it feels like it is still being used as a verb.

Doing some research, the most helpful resource I came across was Gerunds, participles and forms in -ing from Linguapress.com. This lists four different types of words ending -ing:

  1. The gerund is a verb which is used as if it were a noun. Since it is a verb, it can not be qualified by an adjective, nor preceded by an article, but it can be modified by an adverb and take a complement.

    • Seeing is believing.
    • Living cheaply in New York is quite possible.
  2. A verbal noun is a noun formed formed from a verb; some of these end in -ing. It can take a determiner, and be qualified by adjectives.

    • The book was easy reading!
    • He managed to make a good living.
  3. A participle is an adjective or part of a participial phrase qualifying a noun or a pronoun.

    • Smiling, the lady told them they'd won the big prize.
    • I heard them arguing last night.
  4. The present participle is also used in the progressive aspect of verb tenses.

    • I'm taking my brother to the station tonight.
    • The man was phoning his friend, when the lights went out.

To my (imperfect) understanding, in "Riches are for spending.", I don't believe spending fits cases (1) or (2) since I don't think it is being used as a noun. Neither does it seem to fit case (3), since it isn't modifying a noun. It does seem to fall into the fourth category – the progressive aspect – as it represents an ongoing action: spending money (riches). (One might have written "Riches are to be spent." – which [to me] reinforces that it is being used as a verb.)

If the question had come from almost any other quiz show, I would probably have just assumed I was right and chalked it up as a (minor) error on the question-setters' part. However in this case:

  1. University Challenge is quite a "high-brow" quiz ... as can be seen from the other questions in the book listed above. While it doesn't exclude "popular culture", the bulk of its questions are of university-level across many subjects including classics, history, biology, physics, chemistry and the arts. As the book's introduction says: "[The question setters'] hard work – fact-checking, double-checking, cross-checking, and verifying – is contained in these pages.".

    In other words, I would not expect them to be wrong (although I'm sure it has happened).

  2. Especially in the light of the above, I am in no way certain of my analysis, and would welcome an explanation of why the word is, in fact, a gerund.

The closest on-site question I could find is When does a gerund become a verb?. This clarifies that a gerund doesn't become a verb (under certain circumstances), but that a word ending -ing might be a verb. Unfortunately, the answers don't help me clarify the question (but suggest a third option: the use of spending in the original quote may be ambiguous, and there is not enough context to determine if it is being used as a gerund or not).

I don't believe the answers to What's the difference between a gerund and a participle? cover this case: partly because that covers cases (1) and (3) above, but I believe this use is between cases (1) and (4) – gerund or present participle/progressive aspect. However, the accepted answer there (and comments to it) show how complex and/or a matter of opinion these distinctions are, so it may be that this is too "opinion-based".

So: is spending in "Riches are for spending" (a) a gerund, (b) one of the other types of "-ing" word, or (c) we cannot tell from the context?

  • I'm quite happy to ignore "the twaddle" (i.e. ignore whether a word is a verb or noun and go with how it is used)... so the question becomes: is there enough context to say spending is acting as a verb (my thought) or acting as a noun (U.C.'s thought)? – TripeHound Apr 23 '18 at 9:45
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    I'd take "spending" as a verb (cf. "riches are to spend"). Syntactically it's behaving as a verb since it can be modified by an adverb: "Riches are for spending extravagantly", whereas nouns cannot be modified by adverbs. Further, unlike nouns, it has no plural form - we can't say *"Riches are for spendings". And it can take a to PP complement: "Riches are for spending on luxuries". Trad grammar analyses it as a gerund simply because it is complement of a preposition, i.e. a location where nouns normally hang out. Which doesn't tell us what part of speech it actually is. – BillJ Apr 23 '18 at 10:34
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    Possible duplicate of What's the difference between a gerund and a participle?. Although perhaps the most appropriate close-vote reason here is "The answer will either be primarily opinion based or 'primarily opinion based". Different and conflicting definitions are used for 'gerund', so much so that it is considered best avoided by many grammarians. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '18 at 12:39
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    @Nigel J Syntactic Gradience: The Nature of Grammatical Indeterminacy By Bas Aarts gives the relevant quote. The Aarts discussion is commendably balanced, listing contrasting approaches adopted by different grammarians. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '18 at 12:59
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    The golden rule is always look for the evidence, i.e. examine how the word is behaving syntactically. Notice that the other commentators have failed to provide any evidence that "spending" is a noun here. Instead you get a lot of negative woolly unhelpful comments that lead nowhere. – BillJ Apr 23 '18 at 14:30
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Riches are for spending.

I take "spending" as a verb here (cf. "riches are to spend"). Syntactically, there are several indications that it's behaving as a verb:

[1] it can be modified by an adverb: "Riches are for spending extravagantly/cautiously/recklessly", whereas nouns cannot (normally) be modified by adverbs.

[2] Unlike nouns, it has no plural form - we can't say *"Riches are for spendings".

[3] It can take a to PP complement: "Riches are for spending on luxuries".

Traditional grammar analyses "spending" here as a gerund simply because it is complement of a preposition, i.e. a location where nouns normally hang out. Which doesn't tell us what part of speech it actually is -- a typical weakness of traditional grammar.

  • It can also take an adverb: Riches are for spending wisely. And riches is coreferential with the DO of spending, which is transitive in this construction; to me, that means it's a verb, hence a gerund. – John Lawler Apr 23 '18 at 17:19
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    @JohnLawler That's what I said, though I don't use the term gerund. You used "wisely" -- I used "extravagantly, cautiously, recklessly". – BillJ Apr 23 '18 at 17:23

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