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The Wikipedia entry for gerund starts with a list that shows how the term is applied to various languages. And we can see that what the term actually means depends a lot on the specific language we are referring to. For example, it can be a verbal noun in Turkish, an adverbial participle in Portuguese, an adjectival participle in French, part of the infinitive in Hebrew and so on.

As far as I know, the term "gerund" (as many others, like "perfect", "imperfect" etc) was coined by traditional grammarians, focusing primarily on Greek and Latin. But, from a linguistics perspective, is "gerund" a term that can be unambiguously defined for any language? If so, what all these different applications of the term have in common?

  • Note that Greek had no gerund or gerundive. These words are not used to describe Greek, which only has participles and infinitives. – Cerberus Mar 7 '13 at 3:19
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No.

Gerund is one of those terms, as you suggested, that we inherited from Classical languages and grammarians. As such, it's always available as a crutch term to mean "this construction/inflection behaves/means something like __", but the term gerund no more has an unambiguous Universal definition than does the term the phoneme /a/.

I.e, in a given language (Latin, for instance) gerund may have a very useful, natural, and unambiguous definition, with many specific testable properties that distinguish it from other phenomena in Latin (for instance).

But in a different language, with a different distribution of the semantic and pragmatic jobs to be done by verboids like gerunds, participles, and infinitives -- and perhaps more verboid types to choose from than Latin (for instance) has left us clear terms for -- the characteristics that were so clear in Latin (for instance) are found smeared across a number of different constructions, with no clear analog to gerund. In a case like that, a linguist may use the term or not, but if they do, it'll always have to have a footnote attached. That's why many might avoid using it.

For English -- especially given the D-/F level of grammatical instruction in Anglophone schools -- gerund is a term that I use only sparingly, in only one particular context, for one particular construction only: complement clauses (Noun clauses, Su or DO) that use the -ing complementizer.

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In Role and Reference Grammar, gerund is used in the context of subordinating core juncture to refer to a subordinated core whose nucleus is a non-finite verb. This is of course a theory-dependent definition, and other theories will not grant any status to the term, but I imagine that if the RRG conception were applied to cases of gerunds in traditional grammar, most of them would also be analyzed as gerunds in the RRG sense, and some would get reanalyzed.

Some general works on RRG:
Van Valin 2005 "Exploring the syntax-Semantics Interface"
Pavey 2010 "The structure of language"

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