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Note: This is not a question about what is the difference between a gerund, verb and participle, interesting as that polemic may be. It is about non-finite clauses, which does bear upon these distinctions but that is not the question at hand.

There is so much confusion about gerunds, and people often think that any use of the present participle outside the continuous tenses is either a gerund or an adjective. When a present participle is used as a simple subject or object, or when it takes a determiner or adjective as a modifier, its noun-like function is clear and obvious, but when does a such a participle stop being being noun-like or even verb-like (which they always are) and become a verb in a non-finite clause?

Baking is my hobby.

My kids need tutoring.

Owning is better than renting.

Swimming has made my physique lean and strong.

These verb forms are all clearly functioning like nouns and qualify as 'gerunds' because they are things or actions as things but this argument seems to be made because subjects and objects are always things. However, they are not always nouns, obviously. You can't reclassify a verb as a noun because it appears in a sentence as a subject or object. And I doubt this could be considered conversion or zero-derivation because participles are already derivative.

But I can add verb complements and modifiers to these, which cause them to behave more or less like nouns and more or less like verbs, all in one go.

Baking cakes in the wee hours is my hobby.

My kids need (their) tutoring (regularly), at least once a week.

Owning a house is better than renting one.

(my) Swimming (everyday) in the lap pool has helped me in building a lean and strong physique.

The words in ( ) are optional simply to show that these participles can be modified as nouns with determiners and adjectives and as verbs with adverbs and adverbial complements all within a single sentence. This rather confounds the idea that participles can be classified as nouns or verbs based on the modifiers they take, and also the notion that gerunds are nouns.

Have I changed these present participles from 'gerunds' to verbs in non-finite clauses? Is is safe to say that present participles are only 'gerunds' when they do not take a complement or am I missing something more specific that determines this distinction? Or, perhaps, even bare participles as subjects or objects are always non-finite clauses? I'm quite confused on this point. But in any case these participles are not functioning as nouns per se, they are rather functioning as subject or objects, and that distinction to me anyway, seems clarifying.

Addendum: As always, my objective is to explore ways to frame complex topics in the simplest of ways for my ESL students, so they are more readily comprehensible, while still remaining in the zone of broadly accepted linguistic concepts terminology. That's not easy, for one because prescriptivists routinely abuse linguistic terminology and concepts, mixing them up and misapplying them. As a result, there is a lot of inconsistency as to how they are applied in the world of on and offline language instruction and reference works, which usually leaves students befuddled and quite literally hating grammar. At least linguists somehow manage to keep these ideas organized in their proper theoretical silos, even while they debate them, which is quite a feat if you ask me.

I don't particularity like the term gerund and would much prefer to call bare present participles, when used as subjects or objects, as 'participle subjects' or 'participle objects'. This would obviate the confusion around calling them verbal nouns or gerunds or the need to reclassify them as nouns (which I think is wrong because they are already derivative). In this article Zero-derivation – Functional Change – Metonymy by Doris Schönefeld there is no mention of participles as examples of conversion.

My question is really about when these participle subjects/objects are properly considered as non-finite clauses. I know that I'm often opening a can of worms, a rabbit hole so to speak with such queries, but as I delve into these topics I consistently find ways to explain them in simple terms that my students can understand. I also rely on the brain's natural capacity to subconsciously organize patterns in language, which allows me to state things as simply as possible, and then to help students observe the patterns and the meaning that develops with various training exercises. None of us needed to understand the linguistic complexity of our first language to become expert at using it. I think the same should be true for second language learners, with a bit of help from a simplified system of grammar but one that is consistent with standard linguistic terms of analysis. This feels a bit Sisyphean at times but I do make progress.

Note to those who think this is a duplicate question: This is not a question about what is the difference between a gerund, verb and participle. It is about non-finite clauses.

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    Gerund and verb is a false dichotomy. The -ing form of a verb lies on a cline from nominal to verbal. Modern grammars such as the CGEL eschew the term gerund and refer to the form as gerund-participle. – Shoe Oct 25 '19 at 7:25
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    By false dichotomy I mean the assumption that the -ing form can unequivocally be classified as a noun (gerund in traditional grammar) or as a verb. It doesn't account for expressions such "My son('s) watching Netflix all day long annoys me" in which watching has both nominal and verbal features. As a fellow teacher I am interested to know the nature of the confusion that the term gerund causes your learners. Classification/terminology seem of far less importance to me than usage - which is the the issue you raise in your last comment above. – Shoe Oct 26 '19 at 6:25
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    But the Quirk gradience examines clauses, as in 'Brown's deftly painting his daughter ...'. You're just slightly rephrasing the same question. // Essentially, as Aarts points out, there are three ways that are used to determine an -ing form's nouniness or verbiness (obviously in a construction such as 'Brown's deftly painting his daughter'). Lumping (see whether it's closer to being a V or a N in a given sentence, and lump it in that class). Duality (say it's both V and N in the given sentence). Gradience (say it's 37% way along the V - N continuum, so neither V nor N). This has ... – Edwin Ashworth Oct 26 '19 at 13:46
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    been covered here before, and there is no agreed correct answer. When one considers that -ing forms also have, in certain strings, adjectival and prepositional properties, the situation gets even trickier. Who decides which model to use, who decides on the 37% verbiness, who decides on how to judge said verbiness ... there's no clear answer. Just make plain to students that these are tricky areas, and nice well-behaved classical grammar and English are often at odds. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 26 '19 at 13:46
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    Most of the visitors to your post came before you amended it. So if you want to generate more attention to the revised question, you could offer a bounty. That said, I understand the importance of classification for linguists, but I think that teachers and students over-obsessing about terminology is not the most productive use of their time. In my opinion, language is best learned by engaging in authentic, manageable, and interesting tasks that practise the various language skills, rather than a focus on grammar - and particularly on its terminology. – Shoe Oct 27 '19 at 7:47
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Participles cannot make a clause, because a clause should have a subject and verb, which participles do not have.

//Baking is my hobby. My kids need tutoring. Owning is better than renting. Swimming has made my physique lean and strong. However, they are not always nouns, obviously. You can't reclassify a verb as a noun because it appears in a sentence as a subject or object. And I doubt this could be considered conversion or zero-derivation because participles are already derivative.//

In these examples, the italicized words are nouns because they do the function of nouns, as subjects, objects or as complements. And, a subject or object will be formed by a noun, noun phrase, a noun clause and even by infinitive phrase(s); and again they all function as nouns. It is not a matter of reclassification.

//But I can add verb complements and modifiers to these, which cause them to behave more or less like nouns and more or less like verbs, all in one go. Baking cakes in the wee hours is my hobby. My kids need (their) tutoring (regularly), at least once a week. Owning a house is better than renting one. (my) Swimming (everyday) in the lap pool has helped me in building a lean and strong physique. The words in ( ) are optional simply to show that these participles can be modified as nouns with determiners and adjectives and as verbs with adverbs and adverbial complements all within a single sentence. This rather confounds the idea that participles can be classified as nouns or verbs based on the modifiers they take, and also the notion that gerunds are nouns.//

Here, the first question answers the que. “What is my hobby?” Ans: Baking… [“Baking what?” answers “baking cakes” but here again, the subject/noun is BAKING alone] My kids need…? What? TUTORING; It is like any other noun. Owning a house is better than renting one is like “A palace is better than a fort.” Function-wise what is the difference? Referring to your view that “…..as verbs with adverbs and adverbial complements all within a single sentence…” I should say, that these are still nouns; and not verbs. There is no question of reclassifying ‘noun’ as verbs.

// Have I changed these present participles from 'gerunds' to verbs in non-finite clauses?// No, you haven’t. // I'm quite confused on this point. But in any case these participles are not functioning as nouns per se, they are rather functioning as subject or objects, and that distinction to me anyway, seems clarifying.// Only nouns, or words/ word groups that function can make subjects or objects. I think your confusion is whether a gerund or verbal noun can function as a non-finite clause. Non-finites are those that have no tense-like function associated with them; without tense, there cannot be clause(s), but only phrases.

  • Actually, participles often do make a clause. The only time they don't make one, arguably, is when, they are used alone without modification as a subject or object complement or as the object of a preposition. - 'There is no question of reclassifying ‘noun’ as verbs.' Participles are always verb forms, and when used like this, they are reclassified as nouns through zero-derivation; it is not question of reversing this, it is rather one of whether or not it should be done in the first place. – Ubu English Nov 3 '19 at 4:51
  • Say, in an example "Having cleared the exam (Clearing the exam), she applied for a job", your argument is that the first part is a clause governed by the subject in the main clause. In that case, it should be a complex sentence (= a sentence with one main clause and at least one subsidiary clause), but to my knowledge, this is a simple sentence (single-clause sentence). Can someone clarify this? – Ram Pillai Nov 3 '19 at 6:44
  • She, having cleared the exam, applied for a job. - this nf subordinate clause is describing the subject. Simple vs complex depends on how you define a simple sentence and even how one defines clauses and different folks do this differently. I'm not familiar with the term subsidiary clause but assume it is synonymous with subordinate. The subject contains a modifying subordinate nf clause. By my lights sentences are either simple (one clause) or complex (more than one clause of any kind). So, this is a complex sentence. – Ubu English Nov 4 '19 at 5:59
  • He saw the sights and walked slowly. (Compound sentence; it has two main clauses) Seeing the sights, he walked slowly, (Simple sentence), or Having seen the sights, he walked slowly (Simple sentences). It is also written as “He, seeing the sights, walked slowly, OR, “He, having seen the sights, walked slowly.” Even then, the main clause is He walked slowly, and ‘seeing the sights’ & ‘having seen the sights’ are participial phrases. Yes, one can argue that ‘having no subject’ its action is governed by the subject of the main clause, but still I think it remains participial phrase. – Ram Pillai Nov 4 '19 at 9:51
  • When such phrases have subjects, that is ‘absolute construction’. E.g. He having seen the sights, his wife drove the car. They having completed the work, the supervisor offered them a special dinner. It can also be written in passive voice. Eg. AV: [Having completed/Completing] the work, the supervisor offered them a special lunch. PV: [The work having been completed/The work being completed], the supervisor offered them…OR, [The work having been completed/The work being completed], they were offered ... by the supervisor. Others views solicited. – Ram Pillai Nov 4 '19 at 9:53

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