I'm not a native English speaker, and although I know the general rules to identify whether it is a gerund or participle, sometimes I'm still confused about how to distinguish the gerund and present participle, particularly in the example as below. This is a sentence which I saw in the usage of phrase "depend on" from the Longman Dictionary. My question is that whether the "-ing" form in this sentence is a gerund, in which case it functions as a noun, or this is a present participle which refers to the pronoun i.e. "him" and modifies this pronoun.

depend on somebody/something doing something

We’re depending on him finishing the job by Friday.

(Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online)


Although modern grammar doesn't recognize the difference between gerunds and present participles, if we were to distinguish them, then in your case we would have a 'gerund'. The clearest way to see this is to note that you can replace the accusative him by the genitive his, and the genitive can only work with the 'gerund'.


On the one hand, as tchrist and Edwin Ashworth have said in the comments, modern grammar does not distinguish between gerunds and present participles. For example, CGEL has whole sections whose entire purpose is the defense of the proposition that those two are not distinct (pp. 82-83 and 1220-1222).

On the other hand, CGEL also says this (1220-1221; the asterisk, '*', means that what follows is not acceptable English):

A difference in internal form: case of the subject NP (noun phrase)

There is one respect in which 'gerund' and 'present participle' clauses differ in their internal form: with 'gerunds' the subject may take genitive case, with plain or accusative case a less formal alternant, but with 'present participles' the genitive is impossible and pronouns with a nominative-accusative contrast appear in nominative case, with accusative an alternant restricted to informal style. Compare, then:

[39]   i She resented his/him/*he being invited to open the debate.
         ii We appointed Max, he/him/*his being much the best qualified of the candidates.

This difference, however, is obviously relevant only to those constructions where the non-finite clause can contain a subject: it cannot be used to justify a distinction between 'gerund' and 'present participle' in the numerous constructions where no subject is permitted. In terms of our analysis, the contrast in the case of the subject is handled by our distinction between complement and non-complement gerund-participials: genitive case is restricted to the former, nominative to the latter. If the traditional distinction of gerund' vs 'present participle' is to be maintained, it must be based primarily on properties of the subjectless construction. But here there is no difference at all in the internal form of the constructions.

So: if the subject can be in the genitive, then what we have is a gerund. Now consider your sentence:

[1] We’re depending on his/him/*he finishing the job by Friday.

This is just like CGEL's [39i], and thus finishing is a 'gerund'.

  • would it make sense to say "He is depended on finishing the job by Friday"? – James Walker May 1 '18 at 6:00
  • @james-walker Not really. To see why, first note that in the original [1] We depend on him/his finishing the job (I'll drop by Friday), him is the subject of the nonfinite clause him finishing the job. It is that whole clause that is the complement of the preposition on, not just the pronoun him/his. Now, what you are trying to do here is form a passive. This would have to be a prepositional passive. But in that case, the complement of the preposition becomes the subject: [2] ?him/his finishing the job by Friday is depended (up)on (by us). – linguisticturn May 1 '18 at 13:05
  • @james-walker I put a '?' in front because the result is of dubious acceptability. It is that way sometimes with prepositional passives, especially those where there is no choice which preposition to use with the verb (depend must use on, as opposed to in, of, ..).; we say that the preposition is specified by the verb in this case. So, when it comes to the cases when the preposition is specified by the verb, it is not possible to predict, on purely grammatical grounds, whether the prepositional passive will be permitted or not. – linguisticturn May 1 '18 at 13:07
  • @james-walker This is something that, in principle, has to be recorded in a dictionary (though I don't know of a dictionary that actually does this). For the verb *depend, there is a related adjective: dependent. The following is acceptable: [3] He is dependent on finishing the job. But the meaning is now different, as now it is 'him', as opposed to 'us', who depends on him finishing the job. – linguisticturn May 1 '18 at 13:07
  • @james-walker Now, if you want him to be the sole complement of on, you'll need to write [4] We are depending on him to finish the job, where the nonfinite clause is now a to-infinitival one and subjectless. (But now the meaning is a bit ambiguous, as it is not clear who is supposed to finish the job: him, or us. This will have to be understood from context. ) This does passivize: [5] He is depended on (by us) to finish the job by Friday. – linguisticturn May 1 '18 at 13:08

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