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Agnes suggested sending off a balloon with a message to Jenny.

The phrase sending off puzzles me. I know it’s a verb phrase, but I don’t understand why it ends on -ing. Is it a noun or a verb?

I've looked at -ing words and spent some time thinking about how they are used. Normally, we use them as verbs with a form of to be, but there is no am or is here. When you Google "sending off", you get something about rugby, or it shows you send-off. But those are probably not the same thing. It's hard to find the right words to search for. I don't know how to proceed.

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This form of the verb is conventionally called a gerund. From the outside, a gerund works partly like a noun, because it can be the object of a verb, just like a normal noun:

Agnes suggested sending off a balloon.

Agnes suggested group therapy.

Both the gerund phrase and the normal noun phrase have the same function in the main clause, that of an object.

But from the inside, gerunds are somewhat like (main) verbs. In this case, the gerund has a (prepositional) object of itself, which is what verbs normally do:

sending off a balloon

He sends off a balloon.

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    Right, sending is a verb, but that entire non-finite verb phrase it’s heading is the object of the main (finite) verb, suggested. The reason people are always confused about these is because they have never been taught actual syntactic roles only parts of speech, and you can’t resolve paradoxes until you go to a higher level of analysis. When they find themselves forced to try to call the multiword phrase a “noun” because as a syntactic constituent it’s playing the same role as a noun would, they get all tangled up. But phrases aren’t parts of speech, only single words are. – tchrist Aug 12 '18 at 21:29
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    @tchrist♦: But, when a phrase can be substituted for a single word without changing the predicate frame, that means they work similarly in the same context. // I was trying to solve the paradox by the (widely accepted) analysis of a gerund as both noun-like and verb-like at the same time, one its external face, the other its internal. – Cerberus Aug 12 '18 at 21:51
  • You did fine. I just resist the absurd reduction that leads people to call verbs nouns just because they're objects. – tchrist Aug 12 '18 at 22:12
  • @tchrist♦: Words are just words. – Cerberus Aug 12 '18 at 23:35
  • Wouldn't "sending" technically be a PARTICIPLE part of a verb phrase? From the CMS: "Because participles and gerunds both derive from verbs, the difference between them depends on their function. A participle is used as a modifier {the running water} or as part of a verb phrase {the meter is running}; it can be modified only by an adverb {the swiftly running water}. A gerund is used as a noun {running is great exercise}; it can be modified only by an adjective {sporadic running and walking makes for a great workout}." Here, "sending" cannot be modified by an adjective. – user305707 Aug 13 '18 at 4:53
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It’s traditionally considered a verbal noun. However, linguists don’t necessarily think of “noun” and “verb” as mutually-exclusive categories, and this is a good example why. They talk about the grammatical function of a word.

In this instance, I think sending off looks, walks and quacks more like a verb. Compare: “Agnes suggested we send off a balloon with a message to Jenny.” In this example, send is the main verb of a subordinate clause, and it’s the clause that is the direct object of suggested.

However, we can easily think of examples where sending off functions like a noun. (“The sending off was difficult.”)

  • There is an elliptical that: "Agnes suggested [that] we send off a balloon with a message to Jenny." So, yes, send is indeed a verb there (a subjunctive) even from the outside, and of course also from the inside. It was necessary to add a subject (we) for the subordinate clause to work. But now change the main verb such that there could be no elliptical that: "Agnes hated sending off a balloon." That construction isn't possible any more. You can replace it only with a normal noun ("she hated air pollution") or an infinitive ("she hated to send a balloon"): both noun-ish. – Cerberus Aug 13 '18 at 11:57
  • I’m not seeing a difference: “Agnes hated that we sent/would send/were sending off a balloon.” “Agnes hates that we have sent/are sending/will send off a balloon.” Only the simple present tense is ruled out in that context. – Davislor Aug 13 '18 at 18:28
  • @Cerberus In fact, I think the only problem with your example is the “a” in front of “balloon.” “Agnes hates that we send off balloons,” works just fine, but means that we send off balloons repeatedly. Adding an indefinite article makes it a single balloon, one time, so we’d instead say, “Alice hates that we are sending off a balloon.” Even “Alice hates that we send off a balloon on Fridays,” works just fine. – Davislor Aug 13 '18 at 18:37

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