What is a gerund, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 17, 2010

Last week we talked about participles, which are verbs that work like adjectives. Gerunds are also based on verbs, but they work like nouns.

Gerunds have only one form, and it looks exactly like the present participle — ending in “-ing.” But you can tell a gerund is a gerund because it functions as a noun in the sentence. This means gerunds can be subjects or objects:
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. (subject)
Everton has finally mastered braising. (direct object)
Lucinda knows everything about baking. (object of a preposition)

sushiA gerund can have adjectives of its own:
Uniform slicing and dicing makes a successful stir-fry.

Gerunds can also be part of a whole phrase:
Properly preparing an assortment of sushi can be time-consuming.
Some cookbooks have step-by-step photos for creating fancy desserts.

Fused participles
Gerunds don’t usually wind up in “dangling” situations as participles do, but there is one little picky problem area that occasionally arises.

There are sentences that work like this:
Otto’s overseasoning of the sauce ruined the whole dish.
The diners love to watch the chef’s grilling their food right at their table.

Generally, these constructions use a possessive in front of the gerund, called “genitive with gerund.” But in some cases, called “fused participles,” you’ll see a non-possessive form — either a noun or an objective case pronoun — instead of a possessive. And then the gerund turns back into a participle, modifying the noun:
The diners love to watch the chef grilling their food right at their table.

In the past, some usage experts said sentences like the example above are always wrong, because there’s the tiniest possibility it could be unclear.

Nowadays, we know that sometimes it’s better to use the possessive; sometimes it’s better, or at least less awkward, to use a non-possessive noun; and sometimes the context pretty much demands a non-possessive noun, as in this sentence:
The new cook was responsible for the pie bubbling over and burning.

This is really a picky point, though, and with gerunds, you don’t need to worry about errors on the scale of dangling participles.

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