Today, we are going to look at gerund phrases. Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with this term. The concept is actually quite easy to understand.
In this lesson, I will explain everything you need to know in order to use gerund phrases correctly in your own writing.
What is a Gerund?
Before we look at gerund phrases, we should understand what a gerund is.
Put simply, a gerund is a verb that has been converted into a noun. It still expresses the idea of the verb but is used grammatically as a noun. You can easily recognise these as they end in “-ing.”
- Fishing is his favourite pastime.
Here, “fishing” is the subject of the sentence. It is a noun, but it expresses an action that we most commonly think of as a verb: “to fish.”
Gerunds can be subjects, objects, or subject complements:
- His favourite pastime is fishing.
Here, it is the complement of the subject.
- He likes fishing.
Here, “fishing” is the object of the verb “like.”
Now that we know what a gerund is, we can look at gerund phrases.
What is a Gerund Phrase?
As the name suggests, a gerund phrase is a phrase that contains a gerund. Usually, it begins with a gerund. For example:
- Fishing for marlin is his favourite pastime.
- Note that “marlin” is a kind of fish. You can read about them on Wikipedia.
Here, the word “fishing” is still a gerund and “is his favourite pastime” completes this idea. However, “fishing” begins a gerund phrase:
- Fishing for marlin
This idea is a little different to the single-word gerunds we saw above. However, we basically treat them the same. They can be the subject, object, or subject complement of a sentence.
- His favourite pastime is fishing for marlin.
- He likes fishing for marlin.
Here are some more examples:
|Example sentence||Gerund phrase||Grammatical function|
|Listening to podcasts is a great way of improving your English skills.||Listening to podcasts||This is the subject of the sentence|
|She really enjoys singing folk songs.||Singing folk songs||This is the object of the verb “enjoy”|
|He was arrested for driving under the influence.||Driving under the influence||This is the object of the preposition “for.”|
Now you can see that a gerund phrase is simply a group of words that normally starts with a gerund and functions as a noun. (You can read about other noun phrases here.)
Gerund Phrase vs Participle Phrase
Some people feel a bit confused about the difference between gerund phrases and participle phrases because both can begin with an “-ing” word. For example:
- Waiting for her brother at the bus stop, she met an old friend.
The participle phrase here is:
- Waiting for her brother at the bus stop
This starts with “waiting,” which seems like a gerund. However, this is a participle phrase and it uses the present participle form, which would be the same as the gerund form.
There is an easy way to tell the difference. In a participle phrase, the “-ing” word is really a verb that is done by the subject of the following clause. Therefore, the above sentence could be re-written as two sentences:
- She was waiting for her brother at the bus stop.
- She met an old friend.
It can be more effective to combine clauses into single sentences, so sometimes we use participle phrases.
However, because a gerund phrase is basically a noun, it is used very differently. It would need to be related to the main verb of the sentence:
- She really hates waiting for her brother.
Here, “waiting for her brother” is the direct object of “hate.”
Here are some more examples:
|Gerund phrase||Participle phrase|
|He got bored of driving to work every morning.||Driving to work every morning, he became familiar with the local roads.|
|Reading articles about politics is a good way to learn about the world.||Reading articles about politics, she felt more educated about the world.|
|My dog likes sleeping on the sofa.||Sleeping on the sofa, the dog looked very peaceful.|
|The best part of my day is relaxing in front of the TV.||Relaxing in front of the TV, I felt a sudden sense of calm.|
Subject-Verb Agreement and Gerund Phrases
One thing that a lot of people struggle with is subject-verb agreement when the subject of a sentence is a gerund phrase. That’s because the words after the gerund could distract them.
It’s important to recognise that a gerund is treated as singular and as it is the main word in the subject, we must use the singular form of the noun:
- Reading books is a great way to improve your vocabulary.
Note that we don’t say “Reading books are…” That’s because “books” is not the main noun. We essentially say “Reading is…”
This can be even harder when there are more words that follow the gerund:
- Reading books and articles is a great way to improve your vocabulary.
Now it seems like we have two nouns, each of which is plural, before the verb… but still the gerund is the main noun! Thus, we must still use “is” (singular form).
Additional Grammar Notes
Some people get confused and add a comma between the gerund phrase and the rest of the sentence, but this is not correct. Keep in mind that a gerund phrase is basically just a noun.
We cannot say:
- Football, is fun.
Similarly, we do not say:
- Playing football, is fun.
Nor can we say:
- Playing football with my friends, is fun.
In each case, the comma needs to be omitted. You can review the various comma rules here.