English English language Grammar Usage

Is “caring” a noun?

Q: The company I work at lists “caring” as one of its supposed “shared values.” The other values (“productivity,” “integrity,” etc.) are obviously nouns. The word “caring” looks like the odd one out. Sounds awfully, distastefully wrong to me. Am I right?

A: The word “caring” can be a present participle (“He’s caring for his sick child”), a participial adjective (“He is a caring person”), or a gerund (“Caring is a full-time job”).

Although all three are derived from the verb “care,” the present participle is a verb form, the participial adjective is of course an adjective, and the gerund is a noun—technically a verbal noun.

So the gerund “caring” does indeed belong with the other nouns in your company’s list of shared values.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “caring” as a noun, with examples dating back to the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from the English poet Nicholas Grimald’s 1556 translation of Cicero’s De Officiis: “No painfulness, no diligence, no caring.”

A gerund can be a subject, an object, or the principal part of a noun phrase. Although gerunds don’t ordinarily have plural forms, plurals are sometimes used (“comings” and “goings,” for example).

Gerunds are sometimes referred to as deverbals or deverbatives, as well as verbal nouns or simply nouns. Some are listed in standard dictionaries as nouns and some aren’t.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, has separate entries for “running,” “skiing,” and “working” as nouns, but not for “driving,” “eating,” and “smoking.” Why not?

We asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, how lexicographers decide when a gerund gets listed separately as a noun.

He explained that space is the major consideration, so the big Merriam-Webster Unabridged  has more noun entries for gerunds than the M-W Collegiate.

“The bar for gerund entry in the Unabridged is much lower than for the Collegiate, because there’s more space,” Sokolowski said.

Less common gerunds “are considered to be covered by the verb entry,” he added, and a  “similar policy is in place for nouns that function adjectivally.”

“Our Learner’s Dictionary has a more liberal policy regarding gerunds because we can’t assume that the user will understand the relationship between the verb and the gerund, so ‘driving’ and ‘smoking’ are there, for example,” he said.

We’ve written about gerunds frequently on the blog, including a recent post about why some verbs are followed by gerunds and others by infinitives, and an item in 2012 about the difference between gerunds and participles.

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