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Friday, July 24, 2009

Gerunds: To Use Them or Not to Use Them, That Is the Grammar Question

Most of us don't want to be bothered with grammar terms so I do my best to avoid them. The word "gerund" is a case in point. On the other hand, we writers love words and know they serve a function. So somebody at some point made up the word "gerund" so we could talk about a certain part of speech easily without redefining it every time the subject came up.

So why would the subject come up? It doesn't very often. But writers are often warned to be wary of ugly gerunds because they often make sentences feel awkward or--worse--because they are indicators that their sentences may be getting..well, wordy. Mind you, not all gerunds are ugly, but some of them are.

So what is a a gerund? It's a verb in its "ing" form that doesn't know its place. It is no longer playing the part of a verb but has migrated intead to the position of a noun. So, when we write "I am walking," "walking" is a verb. When we write "Walking is good for you," "walking" is a noun.

There is nothing wrong with either of those examples. Neither is awkward and neither is wordy. But when gerunds start cropping up in "subordinate clauses," or "dependent clauses"--meaning the little phrases that aren't really sentences but get hooked onto your main sentences--they can be a danger signal. But so can "ings" when they are still functioning as part of the verb.

Ask yourself if you really need that "ing." Ask whether its a gerund. Can you make the verb simpler by eliminating the "ing" form and if you did would it change the meaning? If you changed it would you make the sentence move along more quickly? If you changed it would you eliminate a word or two? Could you eliminate the entire clause with the "ing" in it? Or make it into a simple sentence of its own and thus make your sentence simpler and easier to read?

And the last question, do you want to do any of those things? If someone has asked Faulkner if he wouldn't prefer to make a "sentence simpler and easier to read" he probably would have been horrified. He was reproducing what he saw as the way his characters think, not the way they write. It was a choice he made. But I'm willing to bet he knew what a "gerund" is. And when to get rid of one.

By the way, my book The Frugal Editor, isn't really a book about grammar. It's a book about making our books as professional as possible by finding typos, by using better formatting and even by sprucing up our writing skills. It's also about using all of those things to better our chances of selling our books. For great editing is great marketing, especially when it comes to getting a publisher or an agent for our hot-off-the-wordprocessor novel.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.


Margaret Fieland said...

Carolyn, thanks for including the definition of gerund here -- I'd forgotten it.

Now that I'm sure I know what a gerund is, I can go de-gerundize my writing .. erm, my stories and articles..

Crystal Clear Proofing said...

Good examples given on a word that stumps many people.

Donna M. McDine said...

I agree with Margaret and Crystal. Thanks for the important info that seems to slip ones mind.

Children’s Author
Write What Inspires You Blog
Donna M. McDine’s Website

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Thank you for the simple explanation of a term I’ve previously had a tough time understanding.

Great Editing Is Great Marketing

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