Is the {-ing} of a gerund a verbal inflectional suffix or a nominal derivational one? For instance, in the sentence Swimming is a great hobby. , swimming is a gerund and it has the syntactical role of the subject of the verb. If we divided the gerund into morphemes, what would we say that {-ing} is?

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    It's both. A gerund is by definition a form which acts syntactically as both noun and verb at once, and trying to distinguish nounier and verbier uses of the -ing form by assigning them to different parts of speech is pretty futile. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 29 '16 at 15:02
  • At the end of the day, it will come down to how each person analyses the grammar and as such there will be no single correct answer. I predict disagreement in the answers and comments... – hippietrail Sep 12 '19 at 9:47

As usual in linguistics, a lot depends on your theory of language.

Not everyone has gerunds in their theory (actually most modern syntacticians don't). There are some researchers who understand gerunds differently. There are linguists who are agnostic about the inflectional/derivational opposition; others have a continuum with inflection and derivation being at either end etc. There's even the Separation Hypothesis (proposed by Beard) that basically makes the criterion of word class change irrelevant to derivation/inflection etc. - see ten Hacken 2014, who mentions Bloch-Trojnar 2006 split proposal for Irish verbal nouns (four uses are inflectional and two derivational).

imho, your example, 'Swimming is a great hobby' (as is), is ambiguous.

Now, here's what CGEL actually says - by the way, imho it is one of the most sound grammatical descriptions of English that is still not terribly dated (nomina sunt odiosa) or overloaded with unnecessary, obscure, (intentionally?) ill-defined conceptual apparatus (nomina sunt odiosa again).

An ing- form can be:

1. a gerundial noun:

She had witnessed the killing of the birds.

Such gerundial nouns can take PP complements and crucially they cannot have NP complements (unlike verbs). Gerundial nouns can be modified by adjectives (the wanton killing of the birds), as opposed to verbs, which are usually modified by adverbs (expelled for wantonly killing the birds). Determiners are possible only with nouns (not verbs), note the killing of the birds above. Finally, nouns can be pluralized, e.g. These killings must stop.

2. a participial adjective

The show was entertaining.

3. a gerund-participle form of the verb

He was expelled for killing the birds.

They are entertaining the prime minister.

I think most syntacticians would agree with (1) and (2).

What HP actually proposed is (3), that from a purely syntactic point of view no viable distinction between what is known in traditional grammar as the gerund and present participle can be maintained.

Most importantly, HP argue that sentences of the type

Kim had been talking about writing are ambiguous, unlike

'Kim hates writing thank-you letters' (verb)


'Kim hadn't been involved in the writing of the letter' (noun).

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    What about examples with both an article and a direct object, like StoneyB's example "It's not the having them, it's the showing them"? – brass tacks Mar 31 '16 at 16:39
  • I'm aware of such hybrid and extremely rare constructions (there's some research on that) but they have never been common (even in Early Modern English), let alone acceptable to most English speakers. – Alex B. Mar 31 '16 at 17:10
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    My impression is that such constructions were standard in EME (though I admittedly don't have a reference). It's certainly true that they're marginal in today's English, though. – TKR Mar 31 '16 at 17:56

The -ing ending of the English gerund is inflectional, since suffixing it does not change the part of speech, and this is generally taken as distinguishing English inflection from derivation. Adding a derivational suffix does change the part of speech, but adding -ing to a verb to get a gerund leaves you with the same part of speech, since a gerund is a verb (contrary to what StoneyB says above in a comment) and not a noun.

Some of the ways to tell a noun from a verb are (1) see if it takes an article (nouns do; verbs don't), (2) see if it can be modified by an adjective (nouns can be; verbs can't be), (3) see if it can be modified by an adverb (verbs can be; nouns can't be), or (4) see if it can take a direct object (transitive verbs can; nouns can't).

Your example "Swimming is a great hobby" is a little tricky, though, because there is nothing there in the subject to tell us unequivocally that "swimming" is a verb and not a noun, and because there is a derivational ending -ing that can sometimes be used to derive nouns (not gerunds) from verbs. If I add a direct object of "swim", though, I get something which can only be a gerund, i.e. a verb form:

Swimming the Atlantic is a great hobby.

And this example should show what is wrong with your statement that a gerund has the syntactic role of subject. It doesn't. In the above example, "swimming the Atlantic" is the subject, not "swimming". In your example, it is the noun phrase made up of the gerund "swimming" which is the subject, not the gerund. Verbs can't be subjects. But this is not obvious when you consider just simple one word subjects, because then you can't see the difference between the noun phrase subject and the contents of that noun phrase.

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  • On the other hand, gerunds do fulfill your criteria 1-2 for nounhood: The swimming is good here, There's good swimming here -- unless of course you argue that these aren't gerunds but something else. (And if swimming the Atlantic is a noun phrase, then by definition its head is a noun.) So I think @StoneyB is right to say that gerunds have qualities of both nouns and verbs. – TKR Mar 29 '16 at 22:42
  • @TKR, No, gerunds do not fulfill any of my criteria for being nouns. Read the third paragraph of my answer. Your example The swimming is good here has the derived noun swimming, not a gerund. You can tell that by trying to add any of the tests for a real gerund: *"The swimming the Atlantic is difficult." *"The rapidly swimming is exhausting", and so on. // It is just not true that the head of every noun phrase is a noun -- there are many obvious counterexamples. – Greg Lee Mar 29 '16 at 22:58
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    @TKR Gerunds with objects and articles are less common than they once were but still acceptable, even in the colloquial register: "You all pretend like no one has any emotions, it's wrong to have them." Harleyetta, voice hoarse, throat hurting, said, “It's not the having them, it's the showing them.“ -Rita Mae Brown – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 30 '16 at 14:37
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    The ambiguity together with the identity of form and meaning suggest to me that the distinction between gerunds and deverbal nouns is less than clear-cut. In any case, the broader point in the context of the OP is that (as per StoneyB's comments) gerunds clearly have some verblike features and some nounlike features; what this means about the inflection vs. derivation question isn't too clear to me, unless it's that this is one case where that dichotomy, too, becomes difficult to uphold. – TKR Mar 30 '16 at 16:56
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    No argument. All I say is that the ambiguity's there from the outset: as soon as you deploy the ing form as head of a phrase which acts in the syntactic role most commonly played by nouns it starts getting nouny. It gets nounier with adjectives and determiners and frank articles. But to my mind it entirely topples over into nominality, never stops being verby, too. ... And the same thing happens with the form, mutatis mutandis, when you deploy in an adjectival role and call it a 'participle'. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 30 '16 at 23:30

How about: "I am going to an interesting reading this evening." Clearly, the word "reading" here is a noun. It is preceded by an article; it could also be pluralized. My guess is that the morphological process that created "reading" still would be 1) read + inflectional -ing (verb). Syntactic demands necessitate nominalization (gerund) in sentences such as "Reading makes me happy." (It's the act of reading.) And then we give this gerund form a secondary meaning and life as a noun (reading as an event.) Thoughts? Or are there instances where -ing is a derivational suffix, creating a noun from a verb?

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  • Welcome to Linguistics Stackexchange. Your comment reads like an open-ended discussion on the question. Stackexchange sites are not the right format for that. Please go through the guidelines on writing good answers and edit your post accordingly. – prash Sep 12 '19 at 16:54

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