I am trying to figure out why go can take a gerund, which is a verb doing the job of a noun, as an object yet the verb go is always intransitive and therefore cannot take an object. I need to make sense of this in order to explain to my class.


1 Answer 1


The verb go can take another verb in the -ing form following it, but that doesn’t make that -ing word a noun (nor go transitive). It is not. It is (usually) still a verb.

  1. When you go hunting deer, here hunting is a verb.
  2. When you go deer hunting, here hunting is a noun.
  3. And when you go hunting deer hunting hunters, you presumably get one of each — or else the deer are out to get you. :)

I would personally avoid confusing people with the word “gerund”; it doesn’t explain what those cases shown above are doing.

The intransitive verb come works similarly. You can come running, but nobody ever came breathless running. They only ever come running breathlessly. Therefore those must be verbs not nouns. And they’re still intransitive.

Figuring things out is harder than it appears.

Figuring is a verb here, not a noun, just like in your other case; that’s why it can have an object. “Gerunds” are only ever verbs. Deverbal nouns like earnings also exist, but since those are nouns they are not “gerunds”.

“Gerund” is not a part of speech. It’s just something a verb can do. It’s still a verb doing it.

Breathlessly running races is not the same construction as breathless race running is.

There the first instance of the word running is a verb because it is modified by the adverb breathlessly and has races as its direct object. The second instance of running is a noun because it is modified by the adjective breathless and by the attributive noun race. It has no direct object, nor can it, being a noun not a verb.

The matrix verb here is the tensed verb is. The syntactic constituent that serves as the subject of that main verb is the nonfinite verb phrase (or clause) Breathlessly running races. It is not a noun because phrases don’t have parts of speech. That entire clause, not some individual word of it, is the subject of the verb is. The only noun in that clause is its direct object, races.

Grade School “Grammar”: An Enduring Curse?

The simplified descriptions of English grammar that we use when teaching our second- and third-graders often deliberately conflate parts of speech like nouns, verbs, and adjectives with grammatical roles like subjects and objects, modifiers and predicates.

A part of speech can only ever apply to individual words alone, while a grammatical role doesn’t care how many words make up that single syntactic constituent.

This probably does little enough harm for its targeted audience, except that we never teach anything beyond that until and unless you take actual courses in linguistics, which is about as rare as hen’s teeth in the general populace.

So what is it really?

“Gerund” is not about parts of speech: it’s about grammatical roles.

  • When a nonfinite verb phrase using that verb’s -ing inflection takes on the grammatical role of a subject or an object in the broader syntactic context, some people call that a gerund phrase.

  • When the identical sequence of words instead takes on the grammatical role of a modifier, some people call that very same thing a participial phrase.

  • Others have dispensed with this confusing Latin-derived terminology altogether, or fused it into a gerund-participle phrase.

But in all those cases it is still only ever a verb, whatever its grammatical role should work out to being.

The fate of ex-verbs

You can “denature” the -ing verb of its verbal nature by converting it into an actual noun or adjective — or occasionally into an adverb, preposition, or conjunction.

Once you’ve done that, your -ing word is not a verb, only a “former” verb, or a word “converted” from a verb via “zero derivation”: it’s spelled the same but acts differently.

Some sources call these ex-verbs verbal or deverbal nouns and verbal or deverbal adjectives/adverbs. Others call them gerundial nouns or participial adjectives/adverbs. The key point is that once their part of speech switches from verb to something else, different rules apply.

  • A deverbal noun like earning can be made plural earnings through inflectional morphology. You can now have various earnings, or use it as an attributive noun as in earning levels. While it is still a verb, all that remains impossible. You cannot talk about “the plural” of earning one’s daily bread because that is still a verb. The verb isn’t a countable thing, nor even a thing at all. The deverbal noun, however, is — or can be roped into being such.

  • A deverbal adjective like boring becomes gradable, so a class might be very boring and one class might be more boring than another. You cannot do that while it is still a verb such as it is in boring me to tears. There would be no place to put very in Somebody boring me to tears was not what I needed then, because there boring is still a verb, not an adjective, so it can’t take very yet.

  • I'd say 'deer hunting' is a compound verb in 'go deer hunting'. Compare 'gone baby-sitting'. Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 19:00
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    @EdwinAshworth You might well be onto something. All I'm especially certain of is that go has an assortment of unusual properties when combining with other verbs, nonfinite forms variously in bare or to infinitive or -ing versions. Kitty, go hunt mice outside. She won't/didn't go hunt mice when I tell/told her to. She'd go hunt/hunting mice whenever she could. She went to hunt mice but got distracted, but this is ungrammatical: She went *hunt mice in the barn.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 21:03
  • In the UK, [go + V {+ NP}] is less productive (sorry) than in the States. "Go fly a kite" is totally idiomatic in the obvious registers, "Go take a hike" is not unknown, but "Go have a look" becomes "Go and have a look". Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 11:30
  • @EdwinAshworth The versions with go and V are plentiful here as well, so much so that I had to consciously omit reporting the many that sprang naturally to mind in my posted examples, hoping to avoid the condemnation typically drawn by the similar try and V forms.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 15:12
  • Condemnation? 'What’s the BrE for “shotgun wedding”?' 'Ans: '“shotgun wedding”' is obviously of far greater value than your answer here (18:2). Doesn't it say somewhere 'Woe unto you when all men speak well of you'? Probably banned as non-PC now. // FWIW, I've snaffled your article and left the wedding party to their own devices. Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 17:00

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