As I have delved deeper into the world of modern grammar, I have noticed frequent references to 'gerund-participial' clauses. Most resources would divide gerunds and participles (past and present) into their own categories, stating that they have different functions. Notably, a gerund can act as a subject or object, whereas a participle cannot. However, I have not seen an accompanying explanation as to why modern grammarians have stopped making the distinction.

I have accepted this new categorisation, but I don't fully grasp the reasoning. Could someone who is knowledgeable about modern grammar explain?

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    The term 'gerund-participle' (and 'gerund-participial' for a clause with a gerund-participle as head) was coined by Huddleston and Pullum, authors of the world's finest (and award-winning) grammar The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL). See DW256's answer for more info.
    – BillJ
    Jan 5, 2022 at 16:45
  • Incidentally, 'participle' is from traditional grammar, and was used because grammarians wanted to draw attention to the way one word-class could become another (i.e. participate in the function of another).
    – BillJ
    Jan 5, 2022 at 17:32

3 Answers 3


From Language Log

...I was happy when Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, presented a clear and compelling argument that "A distinction between gerund and present participle can't be sustained" (pp. 80-83 and 1220-1222). They therefore use the merged category "gerund-participle". I hope that most of you will be as happy about this development as I was. The core examples of the present participle are its uses as a modifier or predicative in sentences like those given in CGEL 3 [14]:

The train is now approaching Platform 3.

The train approaching platform 3 is the 11.20 to Bath.

He threw it in the path of an approaching train.

The core examples of the gerund are its uses as the verbal head of a noun-like construction in sentences like those in CGEL 3 [19]:

Destroying the files was a serious mistake.

I regret destroying the files.


Historically the gerund and present participle of traditional grammar have different sources, but in Modern English, the forms are identical. No verb shows any difference in form in the constructions of [14] and [19], not even be. The historical difference is of no relevance to the analysis of the current inflectional system […] This grammar also takes the view that even from the point of view of syntax (as opposed to inflection) the distinction between gerund and present participle is not viable, and we will therefore also not talk of gerund and present participle constructions […]

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    So basically, it is because 2 people decided to lump the gerund and the participle together...
    – Greybeard
    Jan 5, 2022 at 18:23
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    @Greybeard Have you ever actually bothered to read CGEL?
    – BillJ
    Jan 5, 2022 at 19:08
  • @DW256 A perfect answer in that it focuses on the OP's question concerning where the term 'gerund-participial' came from. Unlike the comment above, it is neutral as to whether H&P are right. Incidentally, Quirk was of the same opinion about the futility of having separate categories for gerunds and present participles.
    – BillJ
    Jan 5, 2022 at 19:29

In comments John Lawler wrote:

It's a matter of terminology. "Gerund" and "participle" are both words that describe specific Latin constructions -- quite a few of them, in fact, because Latin had more participle types than English does, so that Latin grammarians considered participles as being their own part of speech -- not verbs. Today we talk about English participles and gerunds as if they were separate things, like the Roman grammarians did (to them, gerunds were verb forms, not participles). But actually English gerund constructions are just one use of the present participle form and that's where "gerund/participial" comes from.

We know that English verbs have two participial forms -- the {-EN} "past participle", like tired, worn, finished, shelled, etc, and the {-ING} "present participle" like tiring, wearing, finishing, shelling, etc. They all come from verb forms and there's only two such forms; but each one has dozens of uses, some of which have strange names with strange histories in other languages. So we use scare quotes around the terminology.


In a comment Araucaria wrote:

Well, in short, you’ve already put your finger on it! There’s no other type of word which we assign to different categories according to its grammatical relations. So a noun is a noun whether used as a subject, object, determiner, modifier and so forth. In modern English, calling the -ing form of a verb a participle or gerund just tells us what its grammatical relations are and tells us nothing meaningful about what type of word it is!

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    'There’s no other type of word which we assign to different categories according to its grammatical relations' begs the question. The jury was still out, last time I heard, about whether 'steel' in 'steel bridge' has converted fully to an adjective. Jan 9, 2022 at 17:31
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    @EdwinAshworth Even though your steel bridge is obviously both shinier and newer than mine, yours still doesn't strike me as being especially "steeler" than mine. It fact, yours seems a little rocky if you ask me. But I do agree that both are steely enough not to be easily stolen.
    – tchrist
    Jan 9, 2022 at 20:58
  • @tchrist: I think what you are trying to say is that the most important, or an extremely important, criterion by which adjectives are defined is that it should be possible to make comparatives of them. But is that truly the deciding criterion? Isn't there some other, more important one? Don't other adjectives exist which cannot have comparatives? Or are those existenter / more existent? Jan 9, 2022 at 22:05
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    @Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica What I'm saying is that if it's an adjective, it should be modifiable by an adverb. Pace Edwin, you can't do that with steel. Nothing can be rather steel or very steel. So steel is a noun, just like wood is a noun. You can't have a very *wood bridge, either, only a very wooden one.
    – tchrist
    Jan 10, 2022 at 0:56
  • @tchrist: OK but you pick one criterion, then make everything depend on it. Why that criterion? Jan 10, 2022 at 1:45

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