Tricks to Tell the Difference Between a Participle & Gerund
25 JUL 2018
Visiting relatives can be boring. Don’t you think? You rarely go to their house anymore, and every time you do, you realize that you have nothing in common. Sure, they're sweet and feed you cakes and borscht, but they don’t have proper Wi-Fi in their house, don’t drink beer and only listen to classical music. Every time, you vow never to visit them again.
Oh wait, did you read the first sentence to mean that relatives who come to your house are boring?
If you’re confused, you’ve just discovered the difference between a gerund and a participle. Both are formed from a verb by adding the -ing suffix, so they look exactly the same, but they serve very different functions in a sentence.
1 What’s a Gerund?
A gerund is a form of a verb that ends in -ing and is used as a noun. You know that it serves as a noun because you can replace it with a regular noun. It can appear in all the positions in a sentence as a simple noun.
It can appear as a subject in a sentence:
- Running is hard.
- Math is hard. (Gerund replaced by a simple noun.)
It can appear as a direct object of a verb:
- I love running.
- I love math. (Gerund replaced by a simple noun.)
It can appear as an object of a preposition:
- He was scolded for smoking.
- He was scolded for his bad behavior. (Gerund replaced by a noun phrase.)
2 What’s a Participle?
A participle is a form of a verb used as an adjective or an adverb. A present participle, like gerund, ends in -ing.
It can appear as a modifier of a noun, like simple adjectives:
- The smiling old lady showed me the way to the museum. ("Smiling" can be replaced by “beautiful.”)
It can also appear as a modifier of a verb, like simple adverbs:
- Smiling, she showed me the way to the museum. ("Smiling" can be replaced by “Promptly.”)
3 Gerund vs. Participle
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a gerund and a participle. A good rule of thumb to follow is that a participle can be omitted and the sentence will still make sense.
The old lady showed me the way to the museum still works without the participle "smiling," but the same doesn't work for a gerund. If you omit “smoking” from the sentence, He was scolded for smoking, it won’t make sense.
The sentence, Visiting relatives can be boring, is ambiguous because visiting can be interpreted here as a gerund or as a participle. If you interpreted it as "going to relatives houses can be boring," you saw it as a gerund that appears in the subject position in the sentence. You can replace it with a simple noun to confirm it (e.g. Math can be boring). If you interpreted it as "relatives who come to your house can be boring," you saw it as a participle that serves as an adjective modifying the noun "relatives." In this case, you can omit it (Relatives can be boring) and the sentence will still make sense.