My native-speaker's grammatical intuition tells me that:

  • There is a sleeping man under the tree.

is fine but

  • There is a fishing man by the river bank.

is wrong. Why?


  • There is a man sleeping under the tree.


  • There is a man fishing by the river bank.

are fine.

I've thought about this a little, and I've come up with some grammatical hypotheses, but I'd be very grateful if somebody could point me to a general reference on this matter.


Someone asked me what hypotheses I've come up with.

I've identified two cases where an -ing modifier can come before a noun:

  1. When the -ing acts to modify the noun (like an adjective), rather than describe an action being performed at that time, it goes before the verb. E.g. flying fish, dancing girl.

  2. When the verb suggests a sensory impression. E.g. crying baby, shining light.

But there must be at least one more class to account for expressions like a sleeping man.

Second addendum:

I should clarify precisely what fishing man is supposed to mean. It does not mean a man who fishes. That would be taken care of by case 1 of the hypothesis above. The intended meaning is a man who is fishing. (Just like a sleeping man is supposed to mean a man who is sleeping rather than a man who sleeps.)

  • 1
    Wouldn't a 'fishing man' be called a fisherman? Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 9:38
  • @RoaringFish Usually, yes. The plot thickens....
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 9:58
  • @Pitarou ~ to be honest, I don't think there is any plot, let alone a thick one, or any sort of mystery. The answer to your question is "we don't say fishing man because we have the word fisherman for those occasions". In other words, we don't fishing man because we don't need to. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:16
  • @RoaringFish: You said: In other words, we don't [{say/use}] fishing man because we don't need to. William Strunk Jr complained about the word dependable in the 1918 ed. of The Elements of Style: "Dependable. A needless substitute for reliable, trustworthy."link Apparently, whether we need to or not is an insufficient criterion for using "needless" terms and expressions. English speakers have a way of saying whatever they please and whatever pleases them regardless of how it affects the powers that be or not be.
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 14:33
  • 1
    @BillFranke~ you are using a school- boy argument. One example does not disprove a general truth, it is mere pedantry. My link to Ngram proves my statement true. If you dont like that, just search Google for 'fishing man' and then 'fisherman' and compare the number of hits. This is such an obvious fact that I am surprised I have to explain it. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 2:20

7 Answers 7


In normal English syntax, single-word modifiers precede the noun they modify, but phrases follow the noun.

So you put the -ing word before the noun it modifies when it is acting as an adjective, not as a non-finite verb. You put the -ing word after the noun when it is part of a verbal phrase with other parts in it; you can’t have a long verbal phrase preceding the noun it modifies.

Sometimes the -ing word is actually a noun: a writing desk is a desk for writing, not a desk that happens to be writing. But it is still modifying desk. Here are examples of the -ing word used as a modifier (either as adjective or a noun) preceding the modified noun:

answering machine, barking mad, bleeding heart, bowling alley, burning bush, burrowing owl, carrying capacity, changing room, chattering classes, closing credits, coloring book, cooking oil, creeping thyme, dictating machine, drawing board, drilling rig, eating disorder, fighting drunk, firing squad, floating bridge, flying fish, flying buttress, flying fox, flying fuck, growing pains, heating element, holding pen, hopping mad, killing field, landing gear, laughing gas, lending library, lightning bug, magnifying glass, mailing list, missing person, moving walkway, opening night, parking meter, plunging neckline, praying mantis, quaking aspen, revolving door, rising sun, rounding error, scalding hot, shifting use, shouting match, starting line, talking point, thinking cap, trading post, waiting game

On the other hand, here are pairs of examples where the first one has the -ing word first where it acts as a simple adjectival modifer, and where the second one has it acting as an actual verb:

  • the acting director had harsh words for us
  • the director acting in the company’s best interests keeps a tight ship

  • the binding action of this substance
  • the cord binding the two halves together

  • the bouncing ball hit me in the face
  • the ball bouncing down the stairs was lost forever

  • the calling function retains its own private variables
  • the woman calling for a new husband will soon enough find one

  • the carrying case was very heavy
  • the case carrying the lead was heaviest of all

  • the circling vultures drifted ever higher
  • the vultures circling above our heads would wait until we dropped

  • the cooking sausages smelled fabulous
  • the women cooking our breakfast made us wash up first

  • a demanding teacher is hard on the students
  • a teacher demanding full attendance is seldom listened to

  • the facing audience recoiled
  • the man facing the audience cheered

And so on and so forth. In your case, you could have put sleeping afterwards, and had a man sleeping under the tree, but sleeping men like sleeping dogs are not particularly unusual.

However, you would not normally speak of fishing men, so you would have a man (who was/is) fishing for something down by the river bank. If you strained it, you could build up a context in which fishing men might contrast with farming men or some such, but it would be abnormal.

You might find a man singing in the rain, or you might find a singing man (who is out) in the rain, but you will never find a singing-in-the-rain man. Or to put it more crudely, there is a world of difference between having a fucking idiot in your livingroom and having an idiot fucking in your livingroom.

  • 8
    -1: I don't think that this answer addresses the OP's question at all. The abundant examples support the claim that adjectives & verbal phrases are different, but we knew that. The question is: Why is a sleeping man different from a fishing man? Same structure, both men engaged in an activity, both participial adjectives. A fishing license is fine, but why not a fishing man? This answer misses the point of the question. The answer is simply that it's not idiomatic usage in this sentence. The grammar exposition is a pyrotechnic show. Fishing men ain't rare neither.
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 3:21
  • 5
    I'm afraid I don't think you've answered the question. You've just restated and expanded on it. Why can sleeping fulfil the role of adjective when fishing can't?
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 5:28
  • 1
    I've been thinking about the problem. In a dancing girl and a flying fish, the ADJs describe a trait associated with the girl and the fish. If the fishing man is a pro, like the dancing girl (a girl who is dancing isn't a pro), then we say a fisherman, not a fishing man. In a sleeping man, the ADJ describes a temporary state of being: everyone sleeps, but not every man fishes, not every girl dances, and not every fish flies. In the movie The Running Man, the ADJ described the hero's new occupation: his running wasn't normal everyday running. Does this answer your question?
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 9:43
  • @BillFranke You got about as far in your thinking as I'd reached when I wrote my question. And ... yes ... The Running Man popped into my head too! The power of Hollywood.
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:00
  • I'm going to point out that a nounal -ing form before another noun doesn't need to be modifying it, if only so that I can quote Chomsky: Flying planes can be dangerous. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 14:15

Bill is absolutely right in saying that there is nothing grammatically wrong with fishing man. It is not likely to be frequently found, but the Corpus of Contemporary American English has this one record from ‘Stern Men’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, published in 2000:

They were famous lobstermen, superior to every fishing man.

My tentative conclusion is that there is no grammatical rule against placing an adjective ending in ‘-ing’ before a noun. Any counter examples?

  • 1
    Hmm. Thanks for looking that up for me. I think I need to clarify my question. Your example of a fishing man means a man who fishes and, according to my grammatical intuition, that is perfectly acceptable. (It falls in the same category as dancing girl and flying fish.) The example I had in mind was an example in which a fishing man means a man who is fishing.
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 9:32
  • It's a pertinent distinction, and one I had half in mind when I posted my answer. I suspect this would need some corpus work to get any kind of definitive assessment. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 11:24
  • @Barrie ('s Answer): I can't think of any -ing adjectives that can't be used attributively when they can be used at all with a particular noun. -ing - form participial adjectives may, of course, be used in constructions using depictive secondary predication: She found Bill annoying. This particular example is isoformal with the phase structure She found Bill sleeping. - where sleeping is verbal. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 19:44
  • A young (mid-20s) friend from St Vincent (Caribbean English) yesterday immediately responded to this question with "A fishing man..." isn't idiomatic. It's either "a fisherman" or "a man on the river bank fishing".
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 9:08

I wouldn't say that "There's a fishing man by the river bank" is wrong. It's not ungrammatical. It has easily discernible meaning. It just may not be idiomatic. That's not a grammar problem. I think most native speakers would probably say There's a man fishing {by/on/at} the river bank or There's a fisherman {by/on/at} the river bank. Simply a question of style and idiomaticity.

Whether the adjective comes before or after the noun it modifies usually doesn't matter for meaning in English, but There's a man dying by the river bank seems to have a different nuance from There's a dying man by the river bank. Adjective placement seems to me to affect the focus of the sentences in this case -- maybe in all cases (but I haven't thought enough about it to come to any conclusions). Some adjectives -- well, one for certain -- must come after the noun: this is a usage and not a grammar problem: There were flowers galore but not There were galore flowers. Use a different word or phrase, e.g., abundant instead of galore, and the usage rules are different: She had common sense {galore / in abundance}, She had abundant common sense, and She had an abundance of common sense.

In French, however, there's a difference in meaning between "un homme pauvre" and "un pauvre homme": the first guy is penniless and the second is pitiful.

  • 2
    Sorry, but I don't buy into the whole, "If it's comprehensible, it must be right." school of thought. There are some things a native speaker just doesn't say under normal circumstances. Sure, a native speaker may choose to break the rules according to his whim, but there's a difference between choosing to break the rules and there being no rules at all. In the case of -ing + verb there are definitely certain patterns involved, and I would like to know what these patterns are.
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 5:26
  • @Pitarou: That there are patterns is indisputable. However, natural language isn't math. The patterns taught in English textbooks published in Japan encourage EFL students to believe that any noun can fit into the noun slot & any adjective can fit into the adjective slot etc. That just isn't true. My answer doesn't say that anything that's comprehensible is right. It says that the reason "There's a fishing man..." isn't normal is that it's not idiomatic. It's comprehensible but not standard. It fits a pattern, but it's an anomaly. It's case-by-case. これは、わかりやすい ですよね?
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 6:15
  • 1
    Well, no, I didn't say idiom but idiomatic, which simply means language that's standard and natural and normally used by native speakers. If it's not idiomatic, it's abnormal and unnatural. Richard Nordquist defines a collocation as "A familiar grouping of words, especially words that habitually appear together and thereby convey meaning by association." link A dancing girl is an idiom that means "a professional female dancer". It's a collocation, but so is "a girl who is dancing", not an idiom.
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:39
  • 1
    @Bill Franke (Ans abv): I've found, at annies-annex.com/participles_as_adjectives.htm : Participles as adjectives can be confusing and complicated. The reasons why one participle can be used in a certain situation, but not in a different context, or why one participle can be used but not another is still being studied by grammarians. The best way you can learn what is correct and what isn't is to decided each participle individually, and learn by examples of what you study and hear. It's good to find to find someone who agrees with one's opinion - especially if she has a gun! Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Bill Franke (Ans abv): though there are some adjectives used post-positively either at all times (manqué, incarnate) or with different senses (proper, responsible), surely galore is a (post-modifying) quantifier (with admittedly a connotation of a happy excess): There were many wonderful sideshows / There were sideshows galore. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 19:58

In your second addendum you said:

I should clarify precisely what fishing man is supposed to mean. It does not mean a man who fishes. That would be taken care of by case 1 of the hypothesis above. The intended meaning is a man who is fishing.

And that, I think, is the crux of your dilemma.

"There is a fishing man by the river bank" Has two different meanings

  1. There is a man fishing by the river bank (verb)

  2. There is a fisherman by the river bank (noun)

whereas a sleeping man only has the one, logical, interpretation.

  1. There is a man sleeping under the tree.

Hence fishing man could either be derived from a verb or a noun.

Both a fisherman and a man fishing make sense, then I realized that fisherman also has two separate meanings!

  1. A man catching fish (a profession)
  2. A man fishing fish (a hobbyist)

Now the second sounds decidedly odd, the final words: fishing fish is plausible but speakers will naturally avoid saying that.

In order to differentiate the two men; one who catches fish for a living a fisherman from one who does it as a pastime, we have the words: angler and angling.

So perhaps, Pitarou's question:

My native-speaker's grammatical intuition tells me that:

  • There is a fishing man by the river bank.

is wrong. Why?

has something to do with the word, fish, being used as both a noun and a verb. In addition, fish is also a concrete noun, not an abstract one. Here is a list I composed of verbs that are said to be agent verbs. "For example, "driver" is an agent noun formed from the verb "drive". The endings "-er", "-or", and "-ist" are commonly used in English to form agent nouns"

  • There is a dancing man at a party = a man dancing or a dancer at a party.
  • ... a cooking man in the kitchen (sounds really odd) = a man cooking or a cook in the kitchen.
  • ... a cheating man playing in the casino = a man cheating or a cheater in a casino
  • ... a cheating man with his girlfriend.
  • ... a drinking man by the bar counter.
  • ... a gardening man near the tree.
  • ... a milking man in the barn.
  • ... a painting man outside.
  • ... a telephoning man by the kiosk.
  • ... a watering man in the garden (very odd!)

All of the above sound "wrong" to me, perhaps it also has something to do with these words being classed as deverbal

Deverbal nouns are nouns which are derived from verbs or verb phrases, but which behave grammatically purely as nouns, not as verbs.


As I was responding to Barrie English's contribution, an answer to my own question occurred to me. I hope others will tell me what they think of it.

In a nutshell: the statement an Xing Y can be interpreted as meaning either a Y that Xs or a Y that is Xing. In many contexts only one interpretation makes sense (the other is either absurd, or violates's Grice's Co-operative Principle) so we go with that one. In cases where either interpretation makes sense, we prefer a Y that Xs over a Y that is Xing.

For instance, in the case of a sleeping man we could interpret this as meaning either a man who sleeps or a man who is sleeping. But a man who sleeps would be an odd thing to say (all men sleep!) so we interpret this to mean a man who is sleeping. The same applies to a crying baby, a shining light and so on.

But in the case of, say, a dancing girl, or Barrie English's example of a fishing man, here either interpretation would make sense, we favour a girl who dances and a man who fishes.

  • 1
    I think your premise is flawed. An X-ing Y is a Y that is in the act of X-ing. That is what -ing means - an activity. A running man is running right now. A Y that Xs would be an Xer. A swimmer is one who swims, a painter is one who paints, a dancer is one who dances, and a man who runs is a runner, not a running man. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:25
  • 1
    "In cases where either interpretation makes sense, we prefer a Y that Xs over a Y that is Xing." I don't agree with this. There's a dancing girl in the front room is ambiguous without a context. Choosing one or the other indicates a bias unless context supports it. "There's a dancing woman in the front room" is not unambiguous: it means a woman who is dancing, not a professional dancer (even though she might be a pro dancer).
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 10:53
  • @Bill Franke: Did you not mean to say '. . . is not ambiguous . . .'? Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 12:05
  • @BarrieEngland: Yes, I did. Thank you for pointing that out. :-)
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 13:01
  • I take your point, Bill. So how does this sound: in determiner + verbing + noun the verb must be considered, first and foremost, as a modifier of the noun. Depending on the context, it can be interpreted as a noun which verbs, a noun which is verbing, or sometimes it can be left unspecified. (E.g. if I see a winged monkey in the sky, I might say, "Oh! A flying monkey." and it can be taken either way.) Sometimes the verb can mean something else entirely (consider "fucking").
    – Pitarou
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 13:32

Is it because 'sleeping man' may be regarded as state of being for the man, but not 'fishing man'?

  • 1
    Sleeping's a temporary state of being; everybody sleeps. If someone's called "The Sleeping Man", then he (almost) never wakes up. He's either comatose or extremely narcoleptic. Fishing's either a hobby or a profession. Not everyone {fishes/goes fishing}. A fisherman's either an ordinary man who's fishing because it's his hobby or a professional catcher of fish who sells his catch to make his living. The term's ambiguous. It's not normal English to say "There's a fishing man over there": we have the word "fisherman", an idiom, as well as the sentence "There's a man who is fishing over there".
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 5:53
  • We'd usually ellipt: There's a man fishing over there. We could re-arrange: There's a man over there, fishing. Again, these are verbal rather than adjectival uses of the -ing-form. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 8:45
  • @EdwinAshworth Even the other sentence sounds more natural when rearranged thus: "There is a man sleeping under the tree." That should be the correct verbal usage. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 18:38

I had the same question and came across this thread. This is my guess. We can use the -ing form in front of a noun when the action is something that doesn't involve another object. Sleeping is just lying a body on a surface. The same goes with a dancing girl, a crawling baby, a walking man. We don't require anything else other than our body. If the action involves another object, it sounds strange to use the -ing form. A fishing man - fishing will require a fishing pole. A punching man - the man will need to punch something.

  • I think this comes very close. 'We don't drive if there's a risk of a blizzard occurring' is a counter-example. And of course 'There are revolting peasants in the south of the country' and 'There are peasants revolting in the south of the country' have very different default meanings. The postnominal positioning is more verby, the prenominal more adjectival. Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 14:52

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