The Grammarphobia Blog

A participle in gerund’s clothing

Q: I have a question about these two sentences: (1) “The girl hurt her foot playing soccer.” (2) “While playing soccer, the girl hurt her foot.” I believe that “playing soccer” is a gerund phrase in both sentences. Is my assessment correct?

A: Sorry, but “playing” isn’t a gerund and “playing soccer” isn’t a gerund phrase in either of those sentences. Not every word made up of a verb plus “-ing” is a gerund.

In both #1 and #2, “playing” is a participle and “playing soccer” is a participial phrase. In this case, with or without “while,” the phrase is used adverbially because it tells when or how the girl hurt her foot.

Although participles and gerunds are both forms of verbs, they act differently.

A gerund is a verb form ending in “-ing” that functions as a noun. Here’s an example of “playing soccer” as a gerund phrase: “Her favorite pastime is playing soccer.” (Or, conversely, “Playing soccer is her favorite pastime.”)

Participles come in two varieties. Past participles generally end in “-ed” (like “played”), and present participles end in “-ing” (like “playing”).

Participles can function as adverbs (“She hurt herself playing”), adjectives (“She hurt herself on the playing field”) or parts of verbs (“She was playing”).

We should mention here that over the years, some grammarians have drawn a distinction between different kinds of “-ing” adjectives. They regard some as participles and some as gerunds, depending on their function.

For example, George O. Curme, in A Grammar of the English Language (Vol. I), says “sleeping” is used adjectivally as a participle in the phrase “sleeping children” but as a gerund in the phrase “sleeping quarters.”

Why? Because in the first phrase, “sleeping” tells us what the children are DOING; in the second, it tells us what the quarters are FOR. So Curme would call “playing” a gerund in the phrase “playing field,” while we choose to call it a participle.

Some other grammarians draw no distinction one way or the other. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would refer to both as “gerund-participles.” It maintains that there’s “no viable distinction” to be made.

By the way, English got the word “participle” from Old French, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is the Latin participium, which literally means a sharing or a partaking.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the Latin term was used to refer to “a non-finite part of a verb” that shares “some characteristics of a verb and some of an adjective.”

Chambers says the word “gerund” comes from the Late Latin gerundium, which is a bit of a mishmash. It combines the first part of the Classical Latin gerundum, the gerund form of gerere (to bear or carry), with the ium ending of participium.

We’ve written before about gerunds, including a posting a year ago that explores the differences between gerunds and participles.

Check out our books about the English language