I have heard over and over that one should avoid the use of gerunds in one’s writing. What I found is that gerunds are not nearly as simple as I thought, and that gerund warnings may be overstated.

What are Gerunds?

Gerunds are formed when one adds an -ing ending to verbs. Some grammarians argue forcefully that only some –ing ending verbs are gerunds, while others are present participles. Yet others suggest that there is no point in differentiating between them. And still others say gerunds are present participles and a fair number classify any word that ends in –ing as a gerund. Ack! Why didn’t I write about getting published?

Many grammarians argue that only –ing ending words that serve as nouns are gerunds. Thus:

I am running - regular verb

Running is good for you - gerund

My dog loves swimming - gerund

In contrast, present participles are –ing ending verbs that serve as adjectives and modify nouns, such as:

“Nick makes a slicing motion in the air.”

But not all present participle uses are obvious. For example, in this sentence, from Good to a Fault,

“Above them, filling the huge sky, the stars in their millions flickered and stood.”

filling is part of a participle phrase modifying stars.

Nevertheless, there seems to be considerable disagreement with respect to –ing ending verbs that are used in conjunction with auxiliary verbs, such as was or is. Some grammarians more generously (or ungenerously depending on how you look at it) classify the following as gerund uses:

He was waving.

Jim is swimming in the pool.

Yet others are firm that these are verb uses and therefore are present participles.

So now I am confused. Since there seems to be limited agreement, I am going to consider the broadest definition of gerunds, although still trying to exclude obvious present participles.

Why do we care anyway?

There is a strong belief that gerunds weaken writing and that they should be replaced with active verbs. The phrase “he was walking,” it is argued, would be stronger if it just read “he walked”. But in some cases, for example when starting a scene, it is clearer to say what the subject was doing when the scene starts, which requires a gerund. I have tried editing these gerunds out of my work only to have them edited back in.

In addition, writers are cautioned never to start a sentence with a gerund as in,

“Engaging in risky behaviour could get you in trouble.”

This is a reasonable caution as it is a passive construction and places the subject of the sentence.

The other concern about gerunds is that it makes one’s sentences more complex by adding phrases. Others argue the opposite and state that the English language is complex and offers many unique opportunities for expression, including gerunds. Used appropriately, gerunds add diversity to one’s sentences and reduce repetition in sentence structure.

Warning writers to avoid gerunds is somewhat like the warnings regarding ly words. One must avoid overkill in gerund use, but used appropriately they make one’s writing more fluid and lyrical.

So what is appropriate?

So what is appropriate use of gerunds? As usual, I decided to do a count of gerunds in the books on my bedside table. Randomly chosen start page is 162. Since in the first book selected, it became apparent that there would be a fair number of –ing ending words, I decided to only review three pages.

1)   The Best Laid Plans – Terry Fallis – 29 uses of –ing ending words; 6 in conjunction with auxiliary verbs, 5 clear adjectival present participles, 19 likely gerunds.

2)   Atonement – Ian McEwan – 14 uses of –ing ending words; 4 in conjunction with auxiliary verbs, 4 adjectival present participles and 6 likely gerunds.

3)   Good to a Fault – Marina Endicott – 29 uses of –ing ending words; 5 in conjunction with auxiliary verbs, 11 adjectival present participles, 13 likely gerunds.

4)   The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley – 17 uses of –ing ending words; 4 in conjunction with auxiliary verbs, 1 adjectival present participle (but 6 additional possible ones depending on how liberal one wants to be in defining them); 6 likely gerunds.

My conclusion

As with any element of language, gerunds should be used with care, but not avoided.

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