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Each of the following sentences contains a gerund, shown in bold:

Gerunds are the -ing forms of verbs used as nouns, and the English language is full of them! The word itself, gerund, is an interesting one. I would be prepared to bet that no more than half of all native speakers of English have ever of it. And of those who have heard the word before, probably less than 1% would be able to give an accurate definition of its meaning and explanation of its usage. Yet all of these people can speak perfect English! Compare this with the situation of the learner of English as a foreign language. Most of them will have heard their teacher say the dreaded word or seen it in their grammar or coursebooks. Some unlucky ones will have struggled through mindless grammar exercises, in which they have to determine whether the -ing form is in fact a gerund or a participle, if it is being used as a predicative complement to the subject or to the object, and so on.

There is no denying (gerund) that this is a difficult area of English grammar, but in my opinion such exercises do little to help learners in improving (gerund) their writing and speaking competence in the language. There may be some value in learning (yet another gerund!) a list of words that take the gerund as a direct object - e.g. I miss living in London; or I couldn't help smiling. However, such verbs account for only a relatively small area in the complex field of gerunds. I would advise learners to look out for -ing constructions in their own reading, and learn them as vocabulary chunks. [More on this]

See how much you know about gerunds by doing the following questions.

Test 1a

Decide whether the verb in brackets in the following sentences should be in the -ing or infinitive form with to.

Example: Would you like (go) to the cinema tonight? - No thanks, I don't enjoy (go) to the cinema on summer evenings!
Answer: Would you like to go (infinitive) to the cinema tonight? - No thanks, I don't enjoy going (gerund) to the cinema on summer evenings!

Test 1b

Do the same with the following sentences. This time you also have to supply the correct preposition in sentences needing the gerund.

Example: I have never been very good ...... (learn) foreign languages.
Answer: I have never been very good at learning foreign languages.

Test 2

Explain the difference in meaning in the groups of sentences?

Test 3

Which sentence in each of the following pairs is the correct one?

Test 4

What do these gerunds have in common?

angling, mountaineering, shoplifting, bowling, sightseeing, computing


Test 1a

(The question Is it better being rich or beautiful? is conceivable when the speaker knows that the person she is asking is now - or has been in the past - both rich and beautiful.)

Test 1b

Test 2

I am annoyed about not being invited to the party is better if the party has not yet happened. I am annoyed about not having been invited to the party is more likely if the party is over.

I didn't like to tell him implies that the speaker did not tell him; whereas I didn't like telling him implies that the speaker did tell him, and found it painful or embarrassing.

Both Your bike needs oiling and Your bike needs to be oiled are correct and have the same meaning. The first, however, is more usual in British English than the second.

Try to change the batteries is rather an unexpected response to the statement My discman is not working! It implies that the speaker thinks it might be difficult to change the batteries. The response Try changing the batteries. is much more likely and means: Maybe the reason your discman doesn't work is because the batteries are flat. Why don't you change them!

I'm proud of coming first. / I'm proud of having come first. / I'm proud to have come first.

These three sentences have the same meaning, and are used when the speaker is referring to a specific occasion on which she came first. I'm proud to come first is less likely but possible a. if the speaker says it immediately after coming first or b. wishes to express how she feels whenever she comes first.

Test 3

Both of the sentences in these pairs are correct. The first ones, using the personal prononuns you/him, are much more likely in current everyday English than the second, which use the possessive adjectives your/his. In formal situations where the speaker or writer wishes to demonstrate a mastery of English, the second option is to be preferred.

Does me smoking bother you? / Does my smoking bother you? Here the first sentence is incorrect since smoking is the subject of the sentence and so the object personal pronoun me is not appropriate.

Can you help me to change the tyre? / Can you help my changing the tyre. The first sentence is correct; the second is not possible.

I saw him smoking in the garden. / I saw his smoking in the garden. The first sentence is correct. The second does not sound correct. Similarly, I heard him singing in the bath is much more usual than I heard his singing in the bath. On the other hand it is perfectly correct to say: I heard his beautiful singing in the bath.

Mark moaning gets on my nerves. / Mark's moaning gets on my nerves. The second sentence is correct; the first is not possible.

Please thank him for helping is correct. Please thank him for his helping is not.

I will not allow him to smoke in my house. / I don't allow smoking in my house. Both are correct!

I will not allow him smoking in my house. / I don't allow to smoke in my house. Neither is possible

Test 4

angling, mountaineering, shoplifting, bowling, sightseeing, computing

These gerunds, and many other like them, have in common the fact that they appear only in this form, although they seem to have been derived from verbs. For example, it would sound very strange to say: I'm going to angle tomorrow. I sightsaw yesterday. I want to mountaineer when I get older. Did you compute last week? etc. These words are mostly used unchanged in expressions go, take up, spend time.

Vocabulary chunks

A common way of learning new words is to write them down in a small book, with the English word on the left and the translation in the student's native language on the right. One side of the page is then covered up, while the student tries to think of the other language equivalent. For example:

This approach, however, is too limited. At best it allows the learner to recognize/understand the English words when she hears or reads them; it doesn't give her any help in producing them correctly in her own written or spoken language. Much better is to try and learn word chunks which illustrate the particular "grammar" of the word. For example: to apologize (for being late); to insist (on seeing the manager); instead (of doing my homework) ... And instead of doing (!) grammar exercises, the learner could adapt the sentences containing the gerund that she finds in her own reading so that they have a personal meaning. For example, adapting the uses of some of the gerunds identified above: There is no denying that London is an exciting city. I need help in fixing my bike. You seem to be putting on weight, if you don't mind me/my saying!

Of course, this method requires more effort, but it is this very effort that makes it more likely that the learner will actually commit the items to memory!

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