Consider the following sentences:

  1. Cooking is my favourite activity.
  2. Cooking apples are essential for this recipe.

Cooking functions in the first sentence as a gerund. How does it function in the second?

A similar question could be asked of the term cleaning lady. However, while a cooking apple represents an apple which is (itself) cooked, a cleaning lady represents a lady who cleans (something else). Is there a difference?

Other examples:

  • Talking point vs. Watering can
  • Reading material vs. Cutting board
  • 7
    A "cooking apple" isn't necessarily an apple that has already been cooked, but rather one that is suitable for cooking. See here
    – simchona
    Oct 17, 2012 at 19:09
  • 1
    Substitute Running, Running shoes and either Running lady or Running crew. Oct 17, 2012 at 19:20
  • 2
    It's an apple for cooking, distinguishing it from one that is cookable or one that is cooked. Oct 17, 2012 at 19:21
  • 2
    @coleopterist: an attributive noun/gerund is not about who the actor is. What kind of apple/lady? Something to do with cooking/cleaning.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 19:22
  • 3
    I think the simple answer is, Yes, that's right. "An Xing Y" just means "a Y that has something to do with the action of X". It could mean that Y does X ("cleaning lady"), that Y can be done to X ("roasting pig"), that Y is a tool for doing X ("running shoes"), maybe other variations. It's only non-ambiguous because we know by convention what it means in each case. I'm sure you could come up with examples where someone who was not familiar with a particular term might be confused. But then, in general someone who doesn't know the definition of a word could be confused by it.
    – Jay
    Oct 17, 2012 at 21:10

5 Answers 5


Consider the following sentences (stressed words are boldfaced):

  1. Cooking apples is essential for this recipe.
  2. Cooking apples are essential for this recipe.

In (1), cooking apples is an example of a gerund subject complement with a (deleted) indefinite subject. As usual in a transitive subjectless clause, the direct object gets stressed. And, of course, noun clauses are always singular, whence the predicate is essential.

In (2), however, cooking apples is an example of a noun phrase with an attributive adjective formed from a participle, modifying apples, and signifying apples intended to be cooked (as opposed -- in my idiolect, anyway -- to eating apples, which are intended to be eaten uncooked). As usual in a contrastive noun phrase, the contrasting adjective is stressed. And of course the plural noun apples takes a plural predicate are essential.

  • One main point is that not every -ing word is a gerund.

  • Another is that gerunds are really clauses, with subjects (often deleted,
    but still understood), and possibly objects, if the gerund is transitive.

  • Still another is that, when pronounced, there is no ambiguity, because they're not the same.

Edit: (added from the comments)

Cooking apples are for cooking, cleaning ladies are for cleaning. The fact that apples is object and ladies is subject gets lost when the compound is made. There are many many different kinds of noun compound; my favorite pair is pony ride vs snake bite.

  • And 'Cleaning ladies is essential for ...', well, can't they do it themselves?
    – Mitch
    Oct 18, 2012 at 12:56
  • Thanks John. Could you please also explain the distinction between "cooking apples" and "cleaning ladies"? The apples are cooked. But the ladies are not cleaned. Oct 18, 2012 at 18:07
  • 1
    @coleopterist - No, The apples are not cooked. They are apples of the kind that are used to cook with (as opposed to eating apples, or cider apples). Different varieties of apples are meant for different purposes, and these are meant for cooking with. Typically a cooking apple would be smaller and perhaps tarter than an eating apple. They are trying to make sure you don't go out and buy one of those big red eating apples. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_apple
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 18, 2012 at 19:40
  • @T.E.D. This is talked about in the comments attached to the question. If you like, you can leave apples out of it altogether and consider the phrases talking point or reading material instead. Oct 18, 2012 at 20:08
  • Cooking apples are for cooking, cleaning ladies are for cleaning. The fact that apples is object and ladies is subject gets lost when the compound is made. There are many many different kinds of noun compound; my favorite pair is pony ride vs snake bite. Oct 18, 2012 at 20:11

A gerund in English is an -ing form of a verb used as a noun. Compare

Cooking is my favorite activity. ... Running is my favorite activity. — The noun is the subject. Cooking apples are essential. ... Running shoes are essential. —The noun is an attributive.

One difficulty here is that gerunds used attributively may have different semantic relationships to the root verb.

  1. Running shoes, watering cans, grappling hooks are tools designed for use in the activity — like soccer balls.
  2. Cleaning ladies, running crews, teaching assistants are people who perform the activities — like soccer teams.
  3. Cooking apples, reading material, riding horses are the objects operated upon by the activity — like soccer coaches.

Another difficulty is that the -ing form also serves as the participle and maybe used as an adjective. In this use it overlaps with the second use of the gerund, and really the only way to distinguish them in any given context is to ask whether the implication is that the modified 'actor' performs the act just once ir performs it habitually:

The running lady bumped into an elderly gentleman.
The running crew are called for 6 pm.

Sometimes, however, both are true:

The cleaning lady picked up her broom.

In this case, a distinctive test is to ask whether you can flip the actor and the modifier and keep the meaning

?The lady cleaning the room picked up her broom? ‐ probably not; that's a different kind of 'lady'.
?The lady running down the street bumped into an elderly gentleman? — probably; that's the same kind of lady.

  • 'One difficulty here is that gerunds used attributively may have different semantic relationships to the root verb.' Cooking apples are usually cooked before they are eaten (often in a pie, say). They contrast with eating apples, which are usually eaten uncooked. Logically, both are 'eating' apples, but eating apples might be better termed non-cooking apples. Oct 17, 2012 at 21:34
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Well, if you're going to bring logic into it we're all out of a job :) Oct 17, 2012 at 21:36
  • The more common expression is "apples for eating out-of-hand."
    – Merk
    Oct 18, 2012 at 3:55
  • 1
    @Merk: Not where I live. Oct 18, 2012 at 9:21
  • Thanks. The categories are handy to visualise the different types. (I'm not sure if soccer coaches works as an example.) I've also regurgitated an answer of my own using something I found on the net. Please have a look. Oct 18, 2012 at 20:49

It’s helpful to distinguish form and function in these cases. Perhaps in an attempt to do so, grammarians, in describing the former, seem increasingly to refer to ‘the –ing form of the verb’, rather than using terms like gerund or verbal noun. No one can dispute that that is what it is, and it leaves the way clear for an examination of the function.

This form of the verb can perform verbal, nominal and adjectival functions. In your first example, cooking is, as you say, a noun, functioning as the subject of is. In the second, it’s an adjective, modifying apples.

If we speak or hear of a cleaning lady, we know that cleaning is an adjective because, if for no other reason, cleaning and lady quite often collocate in this way. It is hard to think of circumstances in which we would want to use a cleaning lady to describe a woman who was actually engaged in household cleansing duties at the time of speaking. In other words, a cleaning lady is a lady who cleans, and not a lady who is cleaning.

In your other examples, the -ing forms are also adjectives. They are, however, a little different, in that we can’t say that they describe an X that does something rather than an X that is doing something. They do neither. A talking point doesn’t talk, reading material don’t read, a cutting board doesn’t cut and a watering can doesn’t . . . Ah. Well, yes, a watering can does water, but the point is that it doesn’t water of its own accord. It’s a can for watering, just as a cutting board is a board for cutting.

In these cases, ambiguity is unlikely. The ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ points out that ambiguity with the use of ‘-ing’ form can nevertheless arise when it follows a main verb (Is it a noun or a verb?), when it modifies a following noun (Is it a noun or an adjective?) and where it follows the verb be without other modifiers (Is it a verb or an adjective?).


A glossary maintained by an English professor includes the following definitions:

Gerund, Gerund Phrase

A present participle used in a nominal position. A gerund with its complement and/or specifying subject is called a gerund phrase. The "subject" of a gerund phrase is usually in the possessive (genitive) case, serving in effect as the determiner of the phrase, but one does find the objective (accusative) case on occasion, and that seems especially natural when the gerund phrase is serving as a direct object. Direct object gerund or gerund phrases cannot be made passives.

That would perhaps make a gerund phrase synonymous with the "gerund subject complement with a (deleted) indefinite subject" in John Lawler's answer.

More interesting is the entry for gerundive where one of the examples—and an excellent one at that—used is chewing gum:


Another term from Latin grammar, gerundive, is sometimes applied to some or all present participles as premodifiers, but most authorities avoid the term, since English participial premodifiers are not really equivalent to the traditional gerundive found in Latin and some other languages, which implies that something should or must undergo the action specified. Some Latin gerundives of this sort have become independent words in English, like agenda, but English generally uses passive infinitive phrases for this meaning –agenda, for example, would be translated as "to be done." English present participle modifiers usually have the noun modified as the subject of underlying sentences–e.g., overflowing cup implies the cup is overflowing–leaving underlying passive to be expressed with past participle premodifiers–e.g., the frightened cows implies the cows are frightened or Something has frightened the cows. There are, however, a handful of present participle premodifiers which are equivalent to passive infinitives–e.g., chewing gum is gum to be chewed as opposed to chewed gum which is gum that has been chewed. Using gerundive for such cases may not be entirely inappropriate.

Then, by definition, cooking in cooking apples (apples to be cooked) is also a gerundive. This would presumably not apply to cleaning in cleaning lady.

  • This doesn't explain what a cleaning lady is a form of ... Oct 18, 2012 at 20:50
  • 2
    +1 This is valuable. I toyed with the idea of introducing "gerundive" into the conversation, but dropped it because A)it doesn't really sort with the Latin usage, which says of specific apples that they should be cooked now rather than (as in the English construction) that they are of the sort which may be cooked B)I have an ideological objection to importing even more Latin terms into our discourse on English grammar instead of inventing our own terms which describe what we actually do. Oct 18, 2012 at 21:07
  • 2
    Adding unnecessary names for grammatical constructions is a lot of fun, unless the purpose is to clarify instead of obfuscate. We have way too many terms used inaccurately already; why add more. Oct 19, 2012 at 6:05
  • @John Lawler - There you really have a point. +1
    – rogermue
    Jan 18, 2015 at 18:44

As the ing-form can be participle and gerund and as both can stand before a noun as in running shoes you have to decide by logic whether it is a participle as in "a weeping girl" or a gerund.

The transformations of gerunds as in running shoes are "shoes for running" or "shoes used for running", cooking apples are apples used for cooking, a cleaning lady is the lady who does the cleaning. In this latter case cleaning might be a participle but cleaning lady is a common expression for a professional activity and from the context it should be clear what is meant as in

  • The cleaning lady comes on Friday.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.