While we can mostly recognize nouns, verbs, and adjectives with ease, we may not exactly know that their crossbreed forms exist – gerunds and participles.
This goes to show that while speaking and writing in English is pretty simple for the most part, understanding its grammatical system is a different ball game.
But, worry no more because this post is dedicated to making this issue less annoying. So, if you stick around until the end, you surely won’t regret it.
Let’s begin with a quick answer.
What is the difference between a gerund and a participle?
The key difference between a gerund and a participle is that a gerund can only be used as a single part of speech, while a participle can be used in multiple ways. Gerunds act as nouns, while participles could act either as an adjective or an adverb in sentence construction.
Getting to know your gerunds and participles
Before we dive deeper into the ocean of grammar, it would be helpful to have some idea of how the English language is constructed, especially if this is not your cup of tea.
If you have the time, feel free to read our beginner’s guide to syntax to have a glimpse of the structure of the English language.
Gerunds and participles are some of those grammar bits we often want to avoid like the plague. Truth be told, they are certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Why so? This is because gerunds and participles are crossbreed forms of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. This means that they contain properties of the mentioned parts of speech.
Gerunds are those that share the properties of nouns and verbs, while participles are those that share the properties of verbs and adjectives.
Meanwhile, those that share the properties of nouns, verbs, and adverbs are called infinitives. In this post, though, we’ll only focus on gerunds and participles to make things easier.
What makes all these matters worse is the fact that both gerunds and participles are actually formed by adding “-ing” at the end of the word.
For sure, we have all been using gerunds and participles all our lives, but we may not necessarily know what they are and where to find them.
In language studies, both gerunds and participles, as well as infinitives, are collectively called “nonfinite verbs.”
Nonfinite verbs are probably the trickiest to identify and define because they do not necessarily show tense, which finite verbs do.
In other words, they look like ordinary verbs on the surface, but they are used for a different purpose. This is also the main reason why gerunds and participles are hard nuts to crack.
In the next sections, we discuss the nitty-gritty of these two grammatical categories so you can tick these off your bucket list.
Understanding the notorious “gerunds”
Gerunds are a subgroup of verbs under the non-finite category. On the other hand, the linking verbs belong to the finite category.
Early on, we learned that gerunds share the properties of both nouns and verbs. But what does this exactly mean in layman’s terms?
This means that a gerund is formed from a verb, but it is actually used as a noun in the sentence. It can be used as a subject, object, or complement in a sentence.
From this, it follows that a gerund can be modified by an adverb and can even take a direct object’s role, depending on what we want to convey.
This goes back to the fact that we tend to use gerunds because there are times that we also need to use verbs as activity “names” rather than actual “actions.”
Gerunds acting as subjects
The first way to spot a gerund is to look at the subject of the sentence. The subject is the topic or issue being discussed.
Subjects don’t have to be names of people, events, ideas, animals, or things all the time. They can also be names of activities or movements.
When we use a name of an activity as the subject of the sentence, it is called a gerund. If that explanation is still unclear, let’s have a look at an example instead so you can clearly see it.
Spot the word that ends in “-ing” in the sentence below:
The word “singing” in the sentence above is a gerund. It is a gerund not only because it looks like a verb that ends in “-ing” but also because it is used as the subject of the sentence.
Going back to the explanation earlier, although the word “singing” can be referred to as an “action,” it is actually used as the topic or subject of the sentence.
To be extra clear, “singing” is used as an “activity name” in the example – the act of using the voice to produce a musical tone instead of an action or movement in the sentence.
Because “singing” is used as the subject, we get to understand that we are more interested in talking about the activity rather than the person doing the activity, which is “Jolene.”
If we think of it, we can actually say the following to avoid making use of the gerund “singing”:
In reality, we would lose our friends if we talk in the way suggested above. So, we make our language more concise and less robotic by simply using the word “singing.”
Gerunds acting as objects
Not limited to subjects, we can also use gerunds as objects in our sentences. An object is what takes or receives an action.
There are two ways in which we can use gerunds as objects: direct objects and objects of prepositions.
To make things easier, you can spot a direct object by asking the question “What does the subject “like” doing?”
Note that the answer to this question is not the action “done” by the subject because that’s apparently the verb in the sentence.
Here are some example sentences with gerunds acting as direct objects:
Amanda hates cleaning the house.
Layla has never considered quitting grad school.
As mentioned, gerunds can also act as objects of prepositions. An object of a preposition is a noun or a noun phrase that is being referred to by the preposition.
In other words, an object of a preposition is simply a word or phrase that comes after a preposition. Prepositions are function words that work like mini-conjunctions.
Here are some examples of gerunds acting as objects of prepositions, wherein the prepositions of the following are “about,” “for,” and “by”:
Joshua’s love for traveling has pushed him to become a tour guide.
The adverse effects of natural disasters can be lessened by preparing in advance.
By the way, if you’ve ever wondered whether a comma before a gerund is necessary, just bear in mind that gerunds simply follow the same punctuation rules as other nouns.
Gerunds acting as subject complements
Last but not least, gerunds can also be used as subject complements in sentence construction.
Subject complements are words or phrases, particularly nouns or adjectives, that are used to either rename or define the subject.
This job is actually something that both gerunds and participles can do. Don’t worry about participles yet because this will also be explained later in the next section.
Gerunds acting as subject complements are easy to spot, so long that you have already understood the idea that gerunds are also nouns.
This means that gerund subject complements are mainly used to rename the subject of the sentence rather than define or describe it.
Take a look at these examples for a clearer understanding:
The only thing Andrew hates in this world is explaining himself to others.
Sarah’s favorite activity has always been freediving.
Understanding the infamous “participles”
If gerunds are non-finite verbs used as nouns, participles are non-finite verbs used as adjectives. This is the only distinction we have to remember if we get confused again.
There are three known forms of participles: the past, present, and perfect. Present participles are those that end in “-ing,” which are probably the easiest to use and spot.
Past participles are those that end in “-ed” as well as those that take irregular spellings of simple past verbs. Examples of these are “married” and “disappointed.”
Perfect participles are those formed with “having” or “having been” plus the past participle or the third form of verbs, such as “having seen” and “having been eaten.”’
Participles are also known as participial adjectives or verbal adjectives. These naming conventions have been made to make participles less intimidating.
There are two main ways to use participles in English. The first one is to make them act as adjectives, and the second is to make them work like adverbs.
Participles acting as adjectives
If you have thought of the words “boring” and “interesting” while reading the introduction above, you are certainly on the right track.
Those rather tricky words ending in “-ing” and “-ed” that look like verbs and adjectives at the same time are just participles acting as adjectives.
They are higher forms of adjectives that generally confuse non-native speakers of English, which is completely understandable.
If you remember, we learned earlier that participles and gerunds can both be used as subject complements. Participle adjectives are actually popular choices for this role.
Unlike gerunds, though, the job of participles in this construction is to define or describe the subject rather than rename it.
Look at these examples to fully make sense of the explanation:
We ate something that’s quite disgusting.
Not limited to subject complements, participle adjectives can also be used to pre-modify nouns, such as in the following examples:
That disappointing plot twist deserves a bad review.
Lastly, perfect participles are really just phrases that act as adjectives used to describe actions that happen before the main verb.
This construction also requires more advanced thinking, and hence not recommended for beginner-level English learners.
Having been caught cheating on the test, the teacher asked Kris to go out.
Participles acting as adverbs
As you may know, adverbs are used to modify verbs, adjectives, as well as other adverbs when we construct sentences.
When we use participles in this manner in our sentences, they also act as adverbs do. This is a bit trickier than using participles as adjectives though.
Participles acting as adverbs are also known as adverbial participles. They express how, when, why, how often, and where things happen.
To make the explanation above clearer, here is an example of an adverbial participle used to modify an adjective:
Here’s another example making use of an adverbial participle phrase to express the condition of a subject:
Finally, here’s an example of an adverbial participle used to express the manner or background circumstance of an event:
Using both gerunds and participles in a sentence
Because of how creative we are and how flexible the English language is, we can also make us of both gerunds and participles at the same time in the same sentence.
If you have understood the discussion on gerunds and participles above, you should be able to identify the gerunds and participles used in the examples below:
Writing is boring.
Traveling is relaxing.
As you may already know by now, all the subjects in the example sentence above are gerunds, while all the subject complements are participles.
Frequently Asked Questions on “The Difference Between a Gerund and a Participle”
Is a gerund also sometimes called a participle?
A gerund is not called a participle in language studies. A gerund is otherwise known as the “-ing form” of nouns, while a participle is sometimes called the “-ing form” of adjectives.
What is the difference between a gerund and an infinitive?
The most notable difference between a gerund and an infinitive is their form. While a gerund ends in “-ing,” an infinitive is preceded with the preposition “to.”
What is the difference between a gerund and a present participle?
While both gerunds and present participles end in “-ing,” gerunds act as nouns, and present participles generally act as adjectives in sentences.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.