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Participle physics

Q: What parts of speech are the present participles in these sentences? (1) “He saw his sister walking along the road.” (2) “I go running once a week.”

A: First, a little background. A present participle, the “-ing” form of a verb, can play many different roles in a sentence—verb, adjective, adverb, and noun.

As verbs, present participles are used in the progressive tenses: “is walking,” “were running,” “will be driving,” and so on. We ran posts about the progressive tenses in 2015 and 2016.

Present participles can also be modifiers. They’re used as adjectives (“walking stick,” “running shoes”) and as adverbs (“Weeping, she walked along,” “He injured himself running”). We wrote about participial modifiers in a post earlier this year.

Finally, these “-ing” words can function as nouns (“She prefers walking,” “Running is his passion”), in which case they’re called gerunds. We wrote a post about participles and gerunds in 2012.

Now, on to your questions.

In your first sentence, “He saw his sister walking along the road,” the “-ing” word is a participial adjective.

It introduces a participial phrase (“walking along the road”) that functions adjectivally, since it modifies “his sister.”

In a simpler sentence with no phrases, this is easier to see: “He saw Phoebe walking.”

In sentence #2, “I go running once a week,” the “-ing” word complements, or completes, the verb. But what is it?

Traditionally, many authorities would have called this a gerund; some others would have said a participle.

But linguists these days are less definite. They prefer terms like “gerund-participle” or “participle construction” or just “-ing form.”

The waffling is understandable, since these forms have something in common with both nouns and verbs.

Like a noun, “running” functions here as the object of the verb “go.” But unlike a noun, “running” can itself have an object (“he goes running his legs off,” “don’t go running the company into the ground”), which is a characteristic of verbs.

Whatever they are, these “-ing” terms are often seen with the verb “go.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say that “go” can be used transitively (that is, with an object) to mean “to engage in.” The examples given include “went skiing” and “don’t go telling everyone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary regards these “-ing” words sometimes as participles and sometimes as gerunds.

The verb “go,” the OED says, is commonly used with a “participle indicating a concomitant action or activity.”

Oxford’s examples include “go walkyng” (1493); “go begging their bread and singing” (1615); “went looking” (1658), and “went sprawling” (1988).

Elsewhere in its entry for “go,” however, the OED says the verb is complemented by gerunds, and its examples include “go listening,” “go analysing,” and “go asking too much.”

The dictionary also says that in a now archaic usage, “go” was followed by the old preposition “a” (as in “go a courting,” “goes a begging,” “went a hunting”). In those usages, the “-ing” term is a gerund or “verbal noun,” the OED says.

But in modern usages without the prepositional “a,” Oxford considers the “-ing” term a participle.

Other verbs besides “go” are commonly accompanied by “-ing” terms. They include “sit” (“sat knitting”); “stand” (“stood watching”); “lie” (“lay dying”); “stop” (“stopped working”); “continue” (“continue eating”); “come” (“came pouring”); “keep” (“keep moving”); “begin” (“begin writing”); and “start” (“start ringing”).

The OED mentions the use of “-ing” terms with only four of those verbs. It says that in the phrases “came pouring” and “keep moving,” the “-ing” terms are present participles. But in the phrases “begin writing” and “start ringing” it says that the “-ing” words are “verbal nouns”—that is, gerunds.

It’s true that in those examples “writing” and “ringing” are noun-like because they could be replaced by nouns. But they’re also verb-like because, like verbs, they can have objects themselves: “begin writing a novel,” “start ringing the bell.”

We can see why many linguists believe that in some usages it’s impossible to make a clear or useful distinction between a gerund and a participle.

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