Just need your insights on the sentences that really boggle my mind.

The first sentence below is an excerpt taken from the following article:
The effect of smoking on bone healing

It is difficult to draw conclusions on the effect of smoking on bone healing in general.

The question I have is how to make any distinction on noun + gerund structures. It is so obvious on the aforementioned excerpt that the effect of smoking on "bone healing" I acknowledge and understand that.

However, the following one I reckon comes with the same noun + gerund structure but in a different fashion.

A mind wandering in the past and future is a dog without a leash.

Here what we have is "a mind (which is) wandering", not "mind wandering" similar to the "bone structure"

Or the following one:

The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.

I reckon a similar notion applies here. "People (who are coming) here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do"

I would really appreciate it if you could shed light on the ways to discern the difference that can help me understand.

  • Those are not the structure you’re suggesting they are. They are not “noun + gerund structures” at all. The one you’ve suggested certainly can and does occur, as in such cases as “People calling me after midnight really drives me crazy.” But your examples that you gave are nothing even close to that. Yours are something else altogether. See the difference? The real one is a verb, as are all gerund clauses. What you have is merely a modifier. It is not a substantive use.
    – tchrist
    Nov 20, 2021 at 22:41
  • In your sentence, should not it be the following: "People calling me after midnight really drive me crazy. Or the following option: That people are calling me after midnight really drives me crazy.
    – Sercan
    Nov 20, 2021 at 22:48
  • No, not at all. The subject of drives is that entire nonfinite clause, which is always singular. Using a plural verb is certainly allowed here but it means something completely different: it would mean that you're being bothered by those people rather than being bothered by the act of them/their calling you. People is plural but calling is singular. The key to understanding all this is identifying the grammatical roles played by each syntactic constituent, not each word’s individual part of speech. Otherwise you’ll mistake the trees for the forest, so to speak. Or vice versa.
    – tchrist
    Nov 20, 2021 at 22:49
  • Trying to get my head around. "The lost dog wandered the neighborhood" here we have lost: adjective; however if you consider: "The dog lost wandered the neighborhood" it is not adj anymore and I believe it is kind of the reduced relative clause. Is not it?
    – Sercan
    Nov 20, 2021 at 22:59
  • Trying using a past/passive participle instead of a present/active participle: “A mind given too much time lost in the past or the future is like a dog without a leash.” By the way, bone healing no more counts as a gerund clause than bird watching or dish washing does. They're all simply compound nouns that were once real verbs with objects, but only the verb versions can be gerund clauses because clauses are always verbs: Healing bones takes forever. Watching birds makes me happy. I hate washing dishes. Watching birds make me happy is my wife’s greatest joy.
    – tchrist
    Nov 20, 2021 at 23:06

2 Answers 2


The main difficulty results directly from your terminology, which as far as I can tell, is an unusual* one that is leading to paradoxes and misunderstanding. You appear to be using the term “gerund” in a purely inflection sense, not one related to either of part of speech or grammatical function.

  • (It's certainly not unheard of to use it your way; precedent exists. And we do need a word for this. But it's so much more common to use it for one of the other two things that people wouldn't understand you meant it not as they use it but only as a name for the inflection.)

I imagine that this is what’s getting you into trouble because using morphology alone in English is seldom fruitful for higher level analyses. This is because invisible “zero-derivation” transformation to another part of speech is so common in our language.

Barring only defective verbs such as modals, you can always take the base form of any English verb and apply a completely “regular” type of inflectional morphology to it to produce an ‑ING inflection of that verb. Inflections of a word do not change its part of speech in and of themselves.

So if you start with a base form like speak, you can inflect that verb in just a few different ways in English, producing things like speaks, spoke, spoken, speaking. The first two inflections are always used as verbs, but the third and fourth inflections can also be used as other things besides verbs alone, mostly nouns or adjectives like givens and interesting but in rare cases other things like prepositions.

And this is precisely where terminology choice can become hazardous. Because if you're not careful, you will confuse parts of speech with grammatical roles. This is more perilous with the fourth form, the ‑ING one, than the third form that we use when there are auxiliary verbs involved.

Applying a few extremely basic syntactic tests will almost always show you which part of speech between noun, verb, or adjective a given instance of an ‑ING form really is.

  1. If your ‑ING word can be modified by an intensifier like very or rather or fairly, then it can only be an adjective, not a noun or a verb. You can do that with phrases like very interesting, which shows you that here your ‑ING word must be an adjective. (There are a few uncommon cases where an ‑ING might be argued to be an adverbial acting as a “sentence adverb”, but we won’t worry about those rare birds here. Adverbs are still modifiers, just as adjectives are. But even then it could still be a verb clause acting in a modifier role that's adverbial, which wouldn't make it an adverb.)

  2. If your ‑ING word started out life as a transitive verb and you can use whatever core arguments that verb normally takes, then it is still a verb. Being able to use arguments is one of the clearest signals we have that something is a verb. So in speaking truth to power, you know that this is a verb.

    Another possibility you can try with these is to use an -ly adverb, but this alone is not dispositive because most of those can also modify adjectives, not just verbs. That's why we chose very for our adjective test, not some adverb. In calling loudly, you know that ‑ING word is a verb not a noun or an adjective.

  3. Lastly, try applying the customary components of a noun phrase to it, and if those work, then it is only a noun, not a verb or an adjective. The easiest of these is to use nouns or adjectives attributively, so right in front of the ‑ING word. With bone healing you use an attributive noun bone, while with acceptable calling you use an attributive adjective acceptable. Those both show that this time those ‑ING words that started out life as verbs once upon a time must now be nouns.

    Another way to show that they’re nouns is to see if they can be inflected into the regular plural. Only nouns do that, so if so, you can be certain you have an ‑ING word that’s really a noun, not a verb or an adjective. Think of earnings, for example. That’s a noun.

    Still another way to detect nouns is to see whether you can use a prepositional phrase after the ‑ING word. If the original was transitive, see whether you can use of plus the object. That’s why it’s a noun in the herding of goats but just a verb in the activity of herding goats. (But if those goats were special goats bred specifically for herding, then the stress would shift to the other word, and herding would be a noun again.)

That’s really all there is to it.

You will perhaps notice that I haven’t used the word gerund in any of this. That’s because gerund is not a part of speech in English. It happens when you use an ‑ING clause (which being a clause is always going to have an actual verb at its heart, never a former verb) in a grammatical role fulfilled by a noun phrase, such as being the subject or object of another verb or the object a preposition. All these are grammatical roles; they are not parts of speech.

So your first example cannot be using an ‑ING word as a gerund because it is being modified by the noun bone. Therefore it is just a noun, and that noun phrase is the object of a preposition. But it is not a gerund.

Your other cases are using ‑ING words in modifier roles, not substantive roles, so they cannot be gerunds either. You are welcome to think of them as reduced relative clauses under whiz-deletion but you do not need to do that.

Your title asked about “noun + gerund”. None of your cases has that in it, but those can occur. They just aren't very common. That’s because now your -ING word needs that noun in front of it to be the subject of a non-finite verb clause. Here’s one such:

  • People calling me after midnight really drives me crazy.

The subject of calling is people, while the subject of drives is the entire non-finite clause people calling me after midnight. It’s the number of the second verb that tells you what is meant here. Because it is singular, you know that the subject must be the entire clause, as clauses are always singular.

Your alternative proposed version is also valid, but means something completely different.

  • People calling me after midnight really drive me crazy.

Now the verb drive is plural, and the only subject candidate that is plural is people. Now it is the people who are driving you crazy. In my version with the gerund clause, it is the calling itself which is driving you crazy, not the people doing it.

All these are -ING words used as gerunds. That means they are verb clauses in grammatical roles where only noun phrases work for, like subjects and objects. In all but one these verb clauses are the subject, and so their own verbs must be in the singular:

  • Healing bones takes forever.

  • Watching birds makes me happy.

  • I hate washing dishes.

  • Watching birds make me happy is my wife’s greatest joy.

    (I deliberately chose transitive verbs with explicit objects every time so you could immediately see that the -ING words were all certain to be verbs there, never nouns or adjectives.)

The last one has three clauses instead of two like the others. Just count the verbs and you've counted the clauses.

Your own first example has only one clause because it has only one verb, is. None of the other words there is a verb, so that’s all the clauses it has.

I recommend that you stick to parts of speech like noun, verb, and adjective on the one hand and to grammatical roles like subject, predicate, and object on the other hand. (Yes, that still leaves a hole for what to call each inflectional form. Various choices exist for those, too.)

I know you want to say gerund or participle, but these are quite tricky to use in ways that will never confuse anyone because of the confusion over whether they refer to inflectional forms, to parts of speech, or to grammatical roles. Plus they aren’t strictly necessary. They’re also a bit old-fashioned, as modern analysis often avoids them altogether or fuses them into an unwieldy double⸗barrelled form, gerund-participle or even worse, gerundial-participial. No thanks.

I realize that saying an -ING word doesn’t look very formal and Latinate and all, but it better serves us in English. Leave Latin to Latin.

This question comes up many times a month here, often more than once in any given week. And I answer it every year or two, too. It seems unstoppable, and closing as the duplicate it really is at its heart never seems to do any good either. I have no solution to this problem, particularly as most reference materials for beginners treats this matter too simplistically to be of any practical use. Worse, almost all of them are actually flat-out wrong due directly to their wild oversimplifications and misrepresentations.

  • I'd say that "bone-healing" is a verb-centred compound noun. See my comment to the OP.
    – BillJ
    Nov 21, 2021 at 8:46
  • @BillJ Sure, that works. Other terms for -ING words when they’re “former verbs” which one may see in the wild are deverbal noun, or even verbal noun. In modifier cases you also see deverbal adjective or participial adjective pop up. I was mostly trying to avoid going down the path of explaining still more terminology one sees people use for all this because I worry that it may interfere with understanding.
    – tchrist
    Nov 21, 2021 at 12:40
  • Related: 1, 2.
    – tchrist
    Jun 17, 2023 at 16:47
  • @tchrist Hi! I upvoted your good answer! You have impressed me! I have never found in a Grammar book all those things you said in your answer! Is there any book that I can read and mentions all those things you said in your answer? Are you an English teacher? Nov 30, 2023 at 11:16

The distinction is pretty clear: in the first sentence, "healing" is a gerund. In the next two sentences, "wandering" and "coming" are present participles.

In the first sentence, "bone healing" functions as an object of the preposition "on"; gerunds can function as objects of prepositions, while present participles in general do not.

In the other sentences, "wandering in the past and future" describes (modifies) "a mind", and "coming here" describes (modifies) "people". It is possible for a gerund to modify a noun phrase, but it is not very common, and I can't think of any instances in which the gerund would follow the noun phrase. However, that is perfectly normal for a present participle.

  • I wouldn't say that "healing" is a present participle, though it is derived by suffixation from the lexical base form. "Bone" is of course a noun, so we have a verb-centred compound noun comprised of noun+deverbal noun, "bone-healing". Similarly, "town-planning", "shadow-boxing", "fox-hunting" etc.
    – BillJ
    Nov 21, 2021 at 9:51

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