Is there a universal (general) definition of gerund, infinitive and participle applicable to all languages despite the differences between them?

2 Answers 2


Not really.

"Participle" can be defined pretty reliably as "an inflected form of a verb that acts as an adjective". But the line between a participle and any other adjective derived from a verb is fairly arbitrary: there's no obvious descriptive reason why -tus adjectives in Latin are "participles" and -τος adjectives in Greek are not. It just comes down to grammatical tradition.

"Gerund" and "infinitive" are even harder. They're both labels for "a form of a verb that acts as a noun". But the decision to call Latin amāndum and English going "gerunds", and Latin amāre and English to go "infinitives", is also fairly arbitrary. You can argue that Latin and English infinitives mark voice and sometimes aspect while gerunds don't, but there are plenty of other languages where infinitives don't mark those things—off the top of my head, Egyptian and Akkadian. Once again, the distinction mostly comes down to grammatical tradition.

  • And in some cases, even the nominal/adjectival distinction can’t really be upheld – the third infinitive in Finnish, for example, is both a noun (kauppa-ma-an ‘in order to buy’, illative of kauppa-ma ‘a buying, the act of buying’) and an adjective (Päivin kauppa-ma[-ssa] talo[-ssa] ‘[in] the house bought by Päivi’, where the case ending -ssa on both head noun and infinitive shows the infinitive is adjectival). Some have called the latter use an ‘agentive participle’, but only for systematicity, precisely because it’s adjectival here – it is the same verb form. Jun 13, 2021 at 18:44
  • When I was studying Russian at school fifty years ago, what is apparently now called the adverbial participle was referred to in our textbooks as the gerund.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 13, 2021 at 22:27
  • 1
    infinitives usually only appear in quite restrictive morphosyntactic environments, unlike deverbal nouns more generally, so they're a little more distinct than participles are from adjectives etc
    – Tristan
    Jun 28, 2021 at 13:07

Universal dependencies is trying to to that and their attempt on defining some non-finite verb forms in a language-independent way can be seen here. It is still very much informed by Indogermanic languages and has a strong language family bias for that reason.

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