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Grammar: the syntactic function of -ing forms

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the syntactic function of -ing forms.

I know that verbs ending in -ing can function as verbs or nouns or adjectives in a sentence, but can a verb ending in -ing ever function as an adverb? If so, can you cite some examples?
Bob A

Hi Bob,

The use of –ing forms was touched on in a previous question (see ' –ing forms and post modification'), but it’s worth returning to, not least because your question raises interesting issues relating to word class and syntactic function.

The notion of word class (also called part of speech) is a convenient one for labelling purposes but tends to buckle under pressure. Traditionally (just to remind you) there are eight word classes (if we ignore exclamations):

nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, determiners, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions

However, language being what it is, many words elude a neat categorization in these terms. Or they fit into more than one category. The word round, for example, can be noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and preposition. The -ing form – as you imply – is particularly unclear. The very fact that we now bundle together what used to be called gerunds, and what are still called participles, into one category, called -ing forms, is indicative of this uncertainty.

This is well illustrated in Quirk and Greenbaum’s (1973) A University Grammar of English, where they give examples of how the word painting can be placed at any point on a gradient from totally noun-like to totally verb-like. Just a few examples:

  1. A painting of Brown’s…
  2. The painting of Brown is as skilful as that of Gainsborough….
  3. Brown’s deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch…
  4. I dislike Brown’s painting his daughter.
  5. I dislike Brown painting his daughter.
  6. I watched Brown painting his daughter…
  7. The silently painting man is Brown…
  8. He is painting his daughter.

Likewise, the difference between participles and adjectives ending in –ing is not always clear cut. A swimming pool is not the same as a swimming dog, but are either of these uses adjectival, in the sense that, say a boring book is? After all, you can say the book is very boring or that it is more boring than that one.

Boring, in these instances, passes all the tests for adjectives. The same doesn’t apply to either example of swimming. Neither the pool nor the dog can be said to be very swimming. So, swimming, as in a swimming dog (i.e. a dog which is swimming) is best thought of as being verbal, i.e. a participle that is pre-modifying the noun. And swimming pool is probably best classified as a compound noun, formed originally by combining two nouns, with the meaning a pool for swimming.

As a footnote, the Collins COBUILD Grammar (1990) points out that, while most adjectival uses of –ing forms derive from verbs, there are some –ing words that have no related verb. Instead they are formed from nouns or adjectives, and 'verbalised' through the addition of –ing. Examples: neighbouring, balding, enterprizing, and appetizing.

Now, to Bob’s question about adverbs: can a verb ending in –ing ever function as an adverb? The answer is no (unless notwithstanding is deconstructed into the verb to not withstand!) but –ing forms can function as adverbials.

Adverbs and adverbials

So, then, what’s the difference between an adverb and an adverbial? This is where we need to distinguish between word classes, on the one hand, and sentence elements, on the other. We’ve already established that there are eight word classes, of which adverbs are just one. Word classes describe grammatical function at the level of individual words. Sentence elements, however, distinguish between the different syntactic functions of different parts of the sentence, as in subject, object, complement, verb, and  adverbial.

The subject, for example, functions as the agent of the action or state encoded in the verb element of the sentence. And the adverbial typically provides circumstantial information, such as the time, place, or manner, of the situation encoded in the verb. These elements may be realised by individual words, or clumps of words (phrases), or whole clauses.

Adverbials can take the form of adverbs, as in She ate heartily. Or of adverb phrases, as in She ate very heartily. But adverbials can also be realised by other word classes and phrase types. For example:

noun phrases (e.g. she ate last night)

prepositional phrases (e.g. she ate in her room)

finite clauses (e.g. she ate although she wasn't hungry)

non-finite clauses (e.g. being a bit peckish, she ate)

It is in this last category – non-finite clauses – that we find –ing forms fulfilling an adverbial function. This is often the case with so-called comment clauses, as in Strictly speaking, a dolphin is a mammal. But it is also common with verbs that are 'concerned with beginning, ending, or spending time in a particular way' (Collins COBUILD Grammar Patterns: 1. Verbs, 1996), such as start off, end up, (e.g. I started off doing languages; They’d prefer to die fighting…). And also (although, oddly, the aforementioned reference book doesn’t mention these) after many verbs of movement (such as they came running… I went skiing) and verbs of states, as in the Stevie Smith poem:

Nobody heard him, the dead man.

But still he lay moaning...

I’ve often toyed with the notion that the so-called present or past continuous is simply another form of this pattern, i.e. state verb + -ing adverbial. What, after all, is the semantic difference between he lay moaning, he sat moaning, he stood moaning etc. and he was moaning?

(The rest of the Stevie Smith poem, by the way, provides other good examples of –ing forms, including those in its well-known refrain, and title: Not waving but drowning.)

So, the answer to Bob’s question, is no… but, yes.

(And why is it that neither coursebooks nor pedagogical grammars really deal with this stuff?)

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Hello Vineet,

    Thank you for your comment. In the sentence you have given, 'dripping' is an adjective used to emphasise how extremely wet 'we' were.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • We were dripping* wet from the spray.

    What is dripping in this sentence?

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  • interesting! But where are the participle clause student exercises on One stop?

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