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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?

  • 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. – John Lawler Apr 17 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 at 16:49
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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 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 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 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'. – Cerberus Apr 19 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 at 1:07
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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 them [learning it].

This is a raising construction in that them is the object of the verb want, syntactically but not semantically. That is, in (1a) it is not them that you don't want but the accusative case them shows that them somehow is the syntactic object of the verb want. This is because syntactically them 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 them [to learn it].

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

(1c) You don't want them [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 them [knowing it].

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

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

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

When a V-ing form functioning as a verb doesn't have a progressive meaning, it is labeled as a gerund in traditional grammar unless the verb phrase containing the V-ing form post-modifies a noun, as in:

(3) People [knowing him] tend to like him.

Here, knowing functions as a verb and doesn't have a progressive meaning. But in traditional grammar, it is not a gerund but a present participle because the VP [knowing him] post-modifies the noun People.

Except for this post-modifying case, a non-progressive V-ing form functioning as a verb is labeled as a gerund in traditional grammar.

But labeling (1a)'s learning as a gerund is also problematic. If it were a gerund, (1d) would have to be grammatical, which it isn't:

(1d) *You don't want their learning it.

All in all, the OP's example is one of those cases where the traditional dichotomy of a gerund and a present participle doesn't work.

  • do you mean that them rises or is raised? – Toothrot Apr 20 at 10:16
  • @Toothrot You can say either them raises or is raised. – JK2 Apr 20 at 15:30
  • these are two different things – Toothrot Apr 20 at 17:48
  • @Toothrot 'raise' here is not an ordinary verb. So it can be intransitive. – JK2 Apr 21 at 0:05
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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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