Is it acceptable to use a gerund phrase as the subject of a sentence? More generally, can a gerund phrase be used interchangeably with other nouns? For example:

Understanding history enhances one's judgment.

I feel it makes more sense to write:

An understanding of history enhances one's judgment.

  • 1
    It's entirely a stylistic choice in this example. Understanding and accepting this will help you in similar constructions. Seriously, it looks like General Reference to me. – FumbleFingers Oct 15 '12 at 23:18
  • @FumbleFingers It looks like "understanding" is dangling in the first example. Would you say "understanding" and "an understanding" are equivalent? – matt3141 Oct 15 '12 at 23:24
  • No, because if I had to be any more specific about the particular understanding I had in mind there, I'd have to say I was talking about your understanding. I could, of course, have said "Understanding and acceptance of this will help...". And still preceded it with "Your", or "An", if I'd felt like it. Come to that, it would only be slightly unusual to precede it with "The". Lots of ways of phrasing things are perfectly normal. – FumbleFingers Oct 15 '12 at 23:32
  • It's not dangling; this is an elliptical sentence. Words have been omitted, e.g., "If you have an understanding of history, it enhances your judgment". – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 23:33
  • @Bill Franke: I can assume the elision "[You] understanding and accepting..." just as easily as "[Your] understanding and acceptance of this will enhance your judgement". One could even elide OP's "one's", though that does sound slightly "starchy" to me. – FumbleFingers Oct 15 '12 at 23:47

It seems that virtually all nouns that are based on verbs and end in -ing are simply gerunds that have broken free. However, there can subtle differences.

When used as a straight noun, especially with an article, the gerunds-now-nouns tend to refer to the specific:

The acting was incredible. [This particular acting event was praiseworthy.]

When used in a classical gerund form, the phrase is more universal:

Acting is incredible. [The act of acting, in general, is transformative.]

While both forms are grammatically correct, and both sound fine, there may be subtle differences depending on the context. Or there may not. The offered examples appear equivalent.


Both sentences in your question mean the same thing. Both are grammatically correct and, unfortunately, idiomatic.

I say "unfortunately", because contemporary native speakers of English often prefer the second style, which is unnecessarily (and pointlessly) verbose, and because they will also use the now-skunked word "enhances" to mean "improves" or "increases" when it really (IMHO) should be used only to mean "adds {value/flexibility} to".

Only context can allow an answer to the question "Can a gerund phrase be used interchangeably with other nouns?" Although it's common to believe that any noun phrase can fit into a blank labeled "noun phrase" in a fill-in-the-blank type of English test, the meanings of the noun phrases in question have to be considered. In this case, yes. In another case? Who knows? Give us specific pairs to look at.

Generally, the answer is probably "Probably". As FumbleFingers says in his comment, "It's entirely a stylistic choice in this example."

  • Do you have any evidence for saying native speakers "often prefer" OP's second version? It seems to me "Making love can decrease stress levels" is structurally much the same as OP's first example, but you can't even say "A making of love can...", let alone prefer it. – FumbleFingers Oct 15 '12 at 23:41
  • I read academic prose written by native English-speakers every day. In books, academic journals, and Internet blogs. That's the current style. You're right about the set phrase "making love": it can't be said as "a making of love", but it can be as "the making of love", although I haven't seen that one yet, AFAIK. I made no absolutist statement about what native speakers always prefer, just often prefer. I also said: "In another case? Who knows? Give us specific pairs to look at." You just did and I agree that the answer is No in this case. – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 23:48
  • I don't think it's speakers (aside from rhetors) so much as writers who overuse deverbals, and I think it reflects the greater 'scientificity' ascribed to nouns by insecure writers. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 15 '12 at 23:50
  • The word choice of "enhances" was actually from the PSAT, which may disappoint you. For some reason gerund phrases always appear dangling or out of place when I read them. – matt3141 Oct 15 '12 at 23:51
  • @StoneyB: Writers are definitely the ones we remember, but I hear my native Anglophone friends here in Taiwan overusing those deverbals and verbosities like "prior to" in their everyday speech all the time. It's disheartening but not surprising. I like that word "scientificity". Reminds me of "idiomaticity", another favorite. – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 23:54

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