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I found the following on a website:

Sarah made singing a priority

"Here, “singing” is a noun following the verb “made.” “Priority” is the direct object of the sentence. “Singing” is a noun acting as an indirect object in the sentence."

My question is how can singing be considered a noun when it is an action?

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    The same way “following” acts as a noun in your opening sentence.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 18, 2020 at 8:34
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    How can "action" be considered a noun when it is an action?
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 18, 2020 at 9:54
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    'Sarah made singing a real priority' has the same surface structure as 'Sarah made Brian a nice cake', 'Sarah made Brian a solemn promise', 'Sarah made Brian a good husband', 'Sarah made Brian a good wife' ... but that's where the similarities end. Many grammarians have looked at this sort of resemblance; although 'Sarah made Brian a nice cake' is clearly the benefactive structure, if I remember correctly there is no consensus over the analysis of the other sentences. But note the paraphrases 'Sarah prioritised singing' and 'Sarah considered singing to be a priority/need'. Feb 18, 2020 at 14:10
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    @NoamanAli It’s a good thing I posted it as a comment instead of an answer, then. :)
    – Lawrence
    Feb 20, 2020 at 13:22
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    More seriously, though, since you used the same construction yourself, what’s your intuition about this usage of -ing words?
    – Lawrence
    Feb 20, 2020 at 13:25

2 Answers 2

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The website is poorly written. A gerund is not a "noun": it acts like a noun in most but not all contexts.

Like a noun, a gerund can be the subject or object of a verb but a gerund describes 1. "the action of the verb", and 2. it is qualified by an adverb.

1 "Swimming keeps you healthy." = the action of the verb to swim keeps you healthy.

2 "Swimming quickly gets you healthy." - Note that "quickly" modifies "swimming", not "gets."

Compare with the noun "exercise":

1 "Exercise gets you healthy."

2 "Exercise quickly gets you healthy." - Note that "quickly" modifies "gets", not "exercise."

Edited to change "keeps" to "gets"

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    I'm not sure if I think the latter sentence is grammatical. Shouldn't it be 'Exercising quickly...'?
    – Noaman Ali
    Feb 18, 2020 at 20:09
  • The intention is merely to demonstrate the difference between a gerund and a noun. It is "[Swimming quickly] keeps you healthy." and "Exercise [quickly keeps] you healthy." If you have a better example - and I grant that better ones are numerous - I'd be happy for you to give them.
    – Greybeard
    Feb 18, 2020 at 22:25
  • I'm not sure if I understand what you're trying to project, but thanks.
    – Noaman Ali
    Feb 19, 2020 at 6:10
  • @Greybeard Are you saying "Exercise quickly keeps you healthy" is grammatical? If not, you probably should make that clear by explicitly mentioning so in your answer; or, as is the linguistic convention for ungrammatical constructs, preceding the sentence by an asterisk. Also, "swimming" in your sentence (1) can be a noun as well as a gerund (it is only in sentence (2) that it is unambiguously a gerund), though I personally can't think of a better example myself where the ambiguity wouldn't arise. Apr 20, 2020 at 17:41
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    I'm not sure how you can say that when I wrote ""Exercise quickly gets you healthy." - Note that "quickly" modifies [get], not "exercise."
    – Greybeard
    Apr 22, 2020 at 20:56
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As for the question from the title of the article you linked to, the best definition of the term "gerund" that you will find anywhere on the internet is the following: "Gerund is a term that you should forget ever existed in English".

In your sentence the word "singing" functions as the direct object of the verb "make". The word "priority" is a complement of the object "singing".

It leads nowhere to think about verbs as actions, nouns as things etc. The word "singing" does refer to an action, but no less do words like "destruction", "classification" etc. These nouns also derive from verbs, although clearly do not share the suffix with the corresponding verbs destruct, classify etc. There are tons of nouns in English which derive from verbs, and we can make tons more at any given moment.

The key consideration in categorizing words into classes are their distributional properties. So, for example, you won't say "the destruction the city" simply because we distinguish "verbs", as a class of words capable of taking objects, from nouns which cannot do that. It is how we intuitively discriminate between word classes. In the absence of other indicators, we take "singing" to be a noun based on it appearing in a position which is almost reserved for nouns. (not entirely but almost). It is the predicand of the following noun "priority": singing..priority. Or, more generally: She made music her priority.

Depending on how we expand the word "singing" we may think of it as either a noun or a verb (but certainly not as a sort of a mongrel in between these two). Ing nouns and verbs obviously share the suffix, but little more than that. This "little more than that" includes the construction as in your example. Occasionally, a clause headed by an -ing verb can be made an object. So, we won't say that "singing opera" is a noun phrase in:

She made singing opera her priority.

"Singing opera" is an ing clause functioning as the direct object in the structure of this sentence. We don't want to say that "singing" in the original sentence is functionally any different from "singing opera" in the version above. The function is clearly the same, even the form is not. Not only -ing clauses, but also to-infinitival and finite clauses can function as verb object in certain constructions. This is a stance taken by the authors of CGEL and it makes perfect sense.

NOTE: A contributor to the forum says here How is transitivity defined in CGEL? that he "recalls personal discussions with Pullum and Huddleston in which they confirm that only NPs function as objects" . For all I know, this may be true, but in CGEL they took a different position. (which obviously doesn't make a great deal of difference)

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  • My powers of inference probably not being what they were, it's not clear to me if you are saying that singing is a noun or a verb in the sentence: Sarah made singing a priority. I'm also interested in your statement Depending on how we expand the word "singing" we may think of it as either a noun or a verb (but certainly not as a sort of a mongrel in between these two). Are you referring solely to the sentence in question or does that apply to all -ing forms?
    – Shoe
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:24
  • We don't have any specific syntactic or semantic reasons whatsoever to think about "singing" in the OP in any other way than as a noun. When we think about verbs we think predominantly of the predicator in the sentence structure - it is what verbs normally do. When we think of nouns , the first thing that comes to mind is object or subject. If we try any other verb form in place of "singing" that will obviously not work. For this reason we don't have any more trouble distinguishing the noun "singing" from the verb "singing" than we have in understanding "work" as a noun and not a verb
    – user97589
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:43
  • ..in the same sentence: She made work her priority. How do we know that "work" is not a verb when it has identical form as the corresponding verb? (Oddly enough, nobody asks this question, while the -ing form has become notorious for its dual analysis.) We know it mainly because of its functional position within a very familiar syntactic pattern, and we know it intuitively. We set apart word classes according to their peculiar characteristics, and the lack of characteristics typical of other classes.
    – user97589
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:50
  • Thanks as always for the quick response. So as I understand it the presence of opera turns the noun into a verb. But it seems to me that all singing implies some object (something has to be sung), so why would the implied object not render singing a verb?
    – Shoe
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:52
  • The semantic interpretation of the word "singing" in isolation from its syntactic environment also points to its noun-like character. We will mentally group the word "singing" together with other related abstract concept, starting with the closest ones : art, music, painting, singing etc.
    – user97589
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:54

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