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Understanding Verbs: Gerunds, Participles, & Infinitives

 

A verbal is a verb that functions as some other part of speech in a sentence. In the English language, there are three basic types of verbals: gerunds, participles and infinitives. Let’s explore each of these verbals in detail.

 

Gerunds
Gerunds are verbals that function as nouns and have an –ing ending. Since gerunds are derived from verbs and have an –ing ending, they do express action. However, because gerunds function as nouns, they occupy slots traditionally held by nouns in sentences such as subjects, direct objects and objects of prepositions. Gerunds may occur as one word, or they may be part of a gerund phrase. Let’s take a look at some examples:

 

Gerund, functioning as subject
Reading is my most beneficial summer activity.

 

Gerund, functioning as direct object
James enjoys swimming.

 

Gerund, functioning as object of preposition
You will get good grades by studying.

 

Gerund phrase, functioning as subject
Eating on the run is one of the most unhealthy American habits.

 

Gerund phrase, functioning as direct object
The teacher simply cannot excuse sleeping during class.

 

Gerund phrase, functioning as object of preposition
We found the keys by looking on the ground next to the car.


Test: To determine whether a word in a sentence is a gerund, look at the word(s) ending in –ing in the sentence. If this word can be replaced by the pronoun it, then the word is a gerund. If the word it replaces other words in addition to the gerund, then these make up the gerund phrase (Lester 177). Let’s take a look at an example:

 

My grandfather loves getting together at Christmas.


My grandfather loves it.


You may want to pause here and complete exercise 1.

 

Participles
Participles are verbals that usually function as adjectives and occasionally function as adverbs. Participles generally end with an –ed or –ing ending. Since participles are derived from verbs, they do express actions or states of being. When participles function as adjectives, they are usually found preceding the nouns and pronouns in a sentence. When participles function as adverbs, they are typically found following the verb in a sentence. There are two types of participles: present participles and past participles. Present participles have an –ing ending. Past participles may have one of several past tense endings, including –ed, -en, and -d. As with gerunds, participles may occur as one word, or they may be part of a participial phrase. Let’s take a look at some examples:

 

Present participles
The running water provided a picturesque view. (adjectival)
The clown was able to stop the raging bull from attacking the rider. (adjectival)

 

Past participles
The crushed bug was an unpleasant sight. (adjectival)
He was able to repair the broken lock. (adjectival)

 

Present participial phrases
The car stopping at the light was hit by the truck. (adjectival)
The bull came running towards the rodeo clown. (adverbial)

 

Past participial phrases
James, amused by the crowd’s response, continued to perform magic tricks. (adjectival)


Shaken from his near-death experience, John was unable to speak. (adjectival)

 

You may want to pause here and complete exercise 2.

 

Infinitives
Infinitives are verbals that are made up of the word to and a verb. Infinitives may function as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. Since infinitives are derived from verbs, they do express actions or states of being. When infinitives function as adjectives and adverbs, they are usually found preceding nouns and pronouns in sentences, and when they function as nouns, they are used as subjects, direct objects and objects of prepositions. Infinitives (to + verb) should not be confused with prepositional phrases (to + noun or pronoun). Infinitives may occur as to + one verb, or they may be part of an infinitive phrase. Let’s take a look at some examples:

 

Infinitives functioning as nouns
To love is the greatest achievement.

 

Infinitives functioning as adjectives
Jason’s group was the last to arrive.

 

Infinitives functioning as adverbs
The students must pass the TAKS tests to graduate.

 

Infinitive phrase functioning as noun
Ranee wanted to arrive at her destination.

 

Infinitive phrase functioning as adjective
The Smiths were the first family in our neighborhood to adopt a child.

 

Test This test, explained by Mark Lester in Grammar and Usage in the Classroom, only works for infinitives and infinitive phrases that function as adverbs. It is a good test to determine if an infinitive is functioning as an adverb: “If an infinitive or infinitive phrase can be moved to the beginning of the sentence, then that infinitive or infinitive phrase modifies the verb” (199). Let’s take a look at an example:


You must study hard to get good grades.


To get good grades, you must study hard.


You may want to pause here and complete exercise 3.

 

You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Student Success Center exercises available here.

 

Lester, M. (2001). Grammar and usage in the classroom. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.