Gerund

This page explains the difficulty of the gerund for English language learners.

Each of the following sentences contains a gerund There is disagreement about what constitutes a gerund and how it can be defined. Some modern descriptive grammars such as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language deprecate the term altogether, preferring instead gerund-participle. The explanations on this page follow the traditional terminology that defines gerunds as verbal nouns., shown in bold:

  • Smoking is bad for your health!
  • Would you mind opening the window?
  • I apologize for having been rude.

Gerunds are the -ing forms of verbs used as nouns, and the English language is full of them! The word itself, gerund, is an interesting one. I would be prepared to bet that no more than half of all native speakers of English have ever of it. And of those who have heard the word before, probably less than 1% would be able to give an accurate definition of its meaning and explanation of its usage. Yet all of these people can speak perfect English!

Compare this with the situation of the learner of English as a foreign language. Most of them will have heard their teacher say the dreaded word or seen it in their grammar or course books. Some unlucky ones will have struggled through mindless grammar exercises, in which they have to determine whether the -ing form is in fact a gerund or a participle, if it is being used as a predicative complement to the subject or to the object, and so on.

There is no denying (gerund) that this is a difficult area of English grammar, but in my opinion such exercises do little to help learners in improving (gerund) their writing and speaking competence in the language. There may be some value in learning (yet another gerund!) a list of words that take the gerund as a direct object - e.g. I miss living in London; or I couldn't help smiling.

However, such verbs account for only a relatively small area in the complex field of gerunds. I would advise learners to look out for -ing constructions in their own reading, and learn them as vocabulary chunks.

Vocabulary chunks

A common way of learning new words is to write them down in a small book, with the English word on the left and the translation in the student's native language on the right. One side of the page is then covered up, while the student tries to think of the other language equivalent. For example:

  • to apologize : sich entschuldigen
  • to insist : bestehen auf
  • instead : statt/anstatt

This approach, however, is too limited. At best it allows the learner to recognize/understand the English words when she hears or reads them. It doesn't give her any help in producing them correctly in her own written or spoken language. Much better is to try and learn word chunks which illustrate the particular "grammar" of the word.

For example: to apologize (for being late); to insist (on seeing the manager); instead (of doing my homework). And instead of doing (!) grammar exercises, the learner could adapt the sentences containing the gerund that she finds in her own reading so that they have a personal meaning.

For example, adapting the uses of some of the gerunds identified above: There is no denying that London is an exciting city. I need help in fixing my bike. You seem to be putting on weight, if you don't mind me/my saying!

Of course, this method requires more effort, but it is this very effort that makes it more likely that the learner will actually commit the items to memory!

Read more advice on how to learn vocabulary


Quiz

See how much you know about gerunds by doing the following questions.

1. Decide whether the verb in brackets in the following sentences should be in the -ing or infinitive form with to.

Example: Would you like (go) to the cinema tonight? - No thanks, I don't enjoy (go) to the cinema on summer evenings!
Answer: Would you like to go (infinitive) to the cinema tonight? - No thanks, I don't enjoy going (gerund) to the cinema on summer evenings!

  • What shall we do tonight? - How about (go) to the cinema?
  • What shall we do tonight? - I suggest (go) to the cinema?
  • Have you finished (read) the paper?
  • Did you remember (buy) bread on the way home? We don't have any in the house.
  • Do you remember (buy) bread in that French supermarket? We couldn't make ourselves understood!
  • Where's my calculator? I saw you (use) it ten minutes ago.
  • What do you think? Is it better (be) rich or beautiful?
  • It's no use (ask) him for help. He never has any time!
  • I used (ask) him for help a lot. He always had time for me.
  • We stopped (play) tennis when it started (rain).
  • On my way home I stopped (buy) bread.
  • This pencil needs (sharpen).
  • I'm looking forward to (play) tennis tomorrow!
  • Sorry, I didn't mean (hurt) you.
  • I'm determined to get a ticket, even if it means (queue) all night.
  • I object (make) (wait).
  • What shall we do tonight? - How about going to the cinema?
  • What shall we do tonight? - I suggest going to the cinema?
  • Have you finished reading the paper?
  • Did you remember to buy bread on the way home? We don't have any in the house.
  • Do you remember buying bread in that French supermarket? We couldn't make ourselves understood!
  • Where's my calculator? I saw you using it ten minutes ago.
  • What do you think? Is it better to be rich or beautiful?

(The question Is it better being rich or beautiful? is conceivable when the speaker knows that the person she is asking is now - or has been in the past - both rich and beautiful.)

  • It's no use asking him for help. He never has any time!
  • I used to ask him for help a lot. He always had time for me.
  • We stopped playing tennis when it started raining (or started to rain ).
  • On my way home I stopped to buy bread.
  • This pencil needs sharpening (or to be sharpened ).
  • I'm looking forward to playing tennis tomorrow!
  • Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you.
  • I'm determined to get a ticket, even if it means queueing all night.
  • I object to being made to wait .

2. Decide whether the verb in brackets in the following sentences should be in the -ing or infinitive form with to. But this time you also have to supply the correct preposition in sentences needing the gerund.

Example : I have never been very good ...... (learn) foreign languages.
Answer : I have never been very good at learning foreign languages.

  • He apologized ...... (be) late.
  • She delights ...... (make) others feel stupid.
  • He insisted ...... (speak) to the manager.
  • Please don't forget ...... (call) me when you arrive.
  • I got burned ...... (lie) too long in the sun.
  • He was wearing a false moustache ....... (avoid) (be) recognized.
  • I have no intention ....... (tell) you what to do.
  • Shall I turn the TV off? - It's ok; I'm used ....... (work) with it on.
  • I used ........ (work) with the TV on, but now I find it disturbs me!
  • She had plans ....... (leave) home.
  • She made plans ....... (leave) home.
  • You'd better ...... (tell) me the truth.
  • You'd be better off ...... (tell) me the truth.
  • He apologized for being late.
  • She delights in making others feel stupid.
  • He insisted on speaking to the manager.
  • Please don't forget to call me when you arrive.
  • I got burned from lying too long in the sun.
  • He was wearing a false moustache to avoid being recognized.
  • I have no intention of telling you what to do.
  • Shall I turn the TV off? - It's ok; I'm used to working with it on.
  • I used to work with the TV on, but now I find it disturbs me!
  • She had plans of leaving home.
  • She made plans to leave home.
  • You'd better tell me the truth.
  • You'd be better off telling me the truth.

3. Explain the difference in meaning in the groups of sentences?

  • I am annoyed about not being invited to the party.
  • I am annoyed about not having been invited to the party.
  • I didn't like to tell him.
  • I didn't like telling him.
  • Your bike needs oiling.
  • Your bike needs to be oiled.
  • My mp3 player is not working! - Try to change the batteries.
  • My mp3 player is not working! - Try changing the batteries.
  • I'm proud of coming first
  • I'm proud of having come first
  • I'm proud to have come first.
  • I'm proud to come first.

I am annoyed about not being invited to the party is better if the party has not yet happened. I am annoyed about not having been invited to the party is more likely if the party is over.

I didn't like to tell him implies that the speaker did not tell him; whereas I didn't like telling him implies that the speaker did tell him, and found it painful or embarrassing.

Both Your bike needs oiling and Your bike needs to be oiled are correct and have the same meaning. The first, however, is more usual in British English than the second.

Try to change the batteries is rather an unexpected response to the statement My mp3 player is not working! It implies that the speaker thinks it might be difficult to change the batteries. The response Try changing the batteries is much more likely and means: Maybe the reason your mp3 player doesn't work is because the batteries are flat. Why don't you change them!

I'm proud of coming first. / I'm proud of having come first. / I'm proud to have come first.

These three sentences have the same meaning, and are used when the speaker is referring to a specific occasion on which she came first. I'm proud to come first is less likely but possible a. if the speaker says it immediately after coming first or b. wishes to express how she feels whenever she comes first.

4. Which sentence in each of the following pairs is the correct one?

  • I don't mind you smoking. / I don't mind your smoking.
  • Does me smoking bother you? / Does my smoking bother you?
  • Can you help me to change the tyre? / Can you help my changing the tyre.
  • I saw him smoking in the garden. / I saw his smoking in the garden.
  • Mark moaning gets on my nerves. / Mark's moaning gets on my nerves.
  • I'm angry about him lying to me. / I'm angry about his lying to me.
  • Please thank him for helping. / Please thank him for his helping.
  • I don't allow smoking in my house. / I don't allow to smoke in my house.
  • I will not allow him smoking in my house. / I will not allow him to smoke in my house.
  • I don't mind you smoking. / I don't mind your smoking.
  • I'm angry about him lying to me. / I'm angry about his lying to me.

Both of the sentences in these pairs are correct. The first ones, using the personal pronouns you/him, are more likely in current everyday English than the second, which use the possessive adjectives your/his. In formal situations where the speaker or writer wishes to demonstrate a mastery of English, the second option is to be preferred.

Does me smoking bother you? / Does my smoking bother you? Here the first sentence is incorrect since smoking is the subject of the sentence and so the object personal pronoun me is not appropriate. However, you may well hear this in informal spoken English.

Can you help me to change the tyre? / Can you help my changing the tyre. The first sentence is correct. The second is not.

I saw him smoking in the garden. / I saw his smoking in the garden. The first sentence is correct. The second does not sound correct. Similarly, I heard him singing in the bath is much more usual than I heard his singing in the bath. On the other hand it is perfectly correct to say: I heard his beautiful singing in the bath.

Mark moaning gets on my nerves. / Mark's moaning gets on my nerves. The second sentence is correct; the first is not possible.

Please thank him for helping is correct. Please thank him for his helping is not.

I will not allow him to smoke in my house. / I don't allow smoking in my house . Both are correct!

I will not allow him smoking in my house. / I don't allow to smoke in my house. Neither is possible

5. What do these gerunds have in common?

angling, mountaineering, shoplifting, bowling, sightseeing, computing

These gerunds, and many other like them, have in common the fact that they generally appear only in this form, although they seem to have been derived from verbs.

For example, it would sound very strange to say: I'm going to angle tomorrow. I sightsaw yesterday. I want to mountaineer when I get older. Did you compute last week? etc. These words are mostly used unchanged in expressions go, take up, spend time.


There are several interactive quizzes on the Gerund in the Verb grammar: Miscellaneous drop-down menu on the Grammar index.