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"Which is exactly what you don’t want your programmers learning."

Is "learning" gerund or present participle in the above sentence?

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  • Both. 'Present participle' is the name of the verb form ending in -ing. 'Gerund' is the name of a particular complement construction that uses the present participle form of the verb. And learning in the example sentence is a gerund, the direct object of want. Since want can also take infinitive complements, what you don’t want your programmers to learn would also be grammatical, though it wouldn't use either gerund or participle form. Apr 17, 2019 at 14:25
  • @JohnLawler, 'present participle' is not so much the name of the verb forms ending in -ing as it is one of two functions such forms represent. learning out of context is not a present participle any more than it is a gerund.
    – Toothrot
    Apr 17, 2019 at 16:49

3 Answers 3

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It is a participle predicatively adjected to programmers. If it were a gerund, it would have to be capable of being interpreted as a noun substantive, which it is not.

It may help to expand the sentence into

Which is exactly what you don't want your programmers to be learning.

What you don't want is a situation where

Your programmers are learning ...

Here, learning is clearly a predicative adjective. The fact that what is the object of learning qua verb does not prevent the latter from also having the function of an adjective.


Note that, as far as the distinction between participle and gerund is concerned, one needs only consider that participles are adjectives while gerunds are substantives. If the progressive aspect associated with present participles is here absent, this does not mean that learning is not a present participle, but rather that the progressive aspect does not always follow present participles.

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    I don't care if you want to call it a participle or a gerund. But if you're saying that learning is a predicative adjective, you're wrong, because it's not an adjective but a verb. Note that it takes an object what.
    – JK2
    Apr 19, 2019 at 5:13
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    @JK2, no. adjective can refer to a word class; it can also refer to words with a certain syntactic function. the fact that you have been taught in a certain terminology does not mean that this is the only terminology in existence. besides, it is not at all unheard of to regard participles as adjectives derived from verbs. consider also that, in Greek grammar (see for example Smyth), what one might otherwise call gerundives are called verbal adjectives.
    – Toothrot
    Apr 19, 2019 at 12:01
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    @JK2, perhaps you could try to elaborate on why you think this is a problem. does it help to think of 'Which is exactly what you don't want your programmers to be learning'?
    – Toothrot
    Apr 19, 2019 at 16:19
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    @JK2: Participles can be both verbal and adjectival at the same time. Externally, they are adjectival, in that they depend on the noun or pronoun which they modify; internally, they can be verbal, in that typically verbal arguments can depend on them, such as direct objects. So Toothrot's analysis is by no means wrong, nor yet controversial; it's just that different school of academics use different terminology and different systems. As long as each system makes and and is consistent enough, it isn't 'wrong'. Apr 19, 2019 at 16:56
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    @Toothrot I disagree that learning has a progressive meaning to it in the OP. You don't want them learning it does not mean "You don't want them to be learning it". It's got virtually the same meaning as "You don't want them to learn it".
    – JK2
    Apr 20, 2019 at 1:07
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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

Both. 'Present participle' is the name of the verb form ending in -ing. 'Gerund' is the name of a particular complement construction that uses the present participle form of the verb. And learning in the example sentence is a gerund, the direct object of want. Since want can also take infinitive complements, what you don’t want your programmers to learn would also be grammatical, though it wouldn't use either gerund or participle form.

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The OP's sentence is unnecessarily complicated in that it involves a fuse relative construction. So I'll use a simplified example, (1a):

(1a) You don't want your programmers [learning it].

This is a raising construction in that your programmers is the object of the verb want, syntactically but not semantically. That is, in (1a) it is not your programmers that you don't want but the accusative case your programmers shows that your programmers somehow is the syntactic object of the verb want. This is because syntactically your programmers raises to the matrix clause as object even though semantically it is subject of the subordinate clause learning it. Hence, the raising construction.

The same raising construction is found in (1b):

(1b) You don't want your programmers [to learn it].

Note that (1a) is virtually equivalent in meaning to (1b) but not to (1c):

(1c) You don't want your programmers [to be learning it].

(1a)'s learning doesn't have a progressive meaning whereas (1c)'s learning does.

This can be proved by the fact that, while (2a) is grammatical, (2c) is ungrammatical because the verb know cannot be used in the progressive aspect.

(2a) You don't want your programmers [knowing it].

(2b) You don't want your programmers [to know it].

(2c) *You don't want your programmers [to be knowing it].

Therefore, knowing in (2a) doesn't have a progressive meaning.

With that said, let's address the question. The grammatical nature of learning is determined by the usage of the matrix verb want. The verb want doesn't normally allow a V-ing phrase (e.g., learning it) as complement:

(3a) *You don't want [learning it].

(3b) You don't want [to learn it].

Even when your programmers is kept as object, the verb want doesn't allow a V-ing phrase when the verb is not negated:

(4) *You want your programmers [learning it].

What all this means is that the verb want cannot be taking learning it as object, and therefore that learning it is not a gerund in (1a). Since it's not a gerund, it has to be a participle.

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  • do you mean that them rises or is raised?
    – Toothrot
    Apr 20, 2019 at 10:16
  • @Toothrot You can say either them raises or is raised.
    – JK2
    Apr 20, 2019 at 15:30
  • these are two different things
    – Toothrot
    Apr 20, 2019 at 17:48
  • @Toothrot 'raise' here is not an ordinary verb. So it can be intransitive.
    – JK2
    Apr 21, 2019 at 0:05
  • @BillJ: Could you please share your thoughts on this one?
    – user405662
    Feb 25, 2021 at 16:52

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