Word Play: let’s talk about -ing words

Word Play is a series for the grammar police, former English majors, word nerds, pedants, and people who are curious about the evolution of language, grammar, standardization, style, and prose. Be warned: this series will get very political. Red ink may bleed.

Remember how you vowed to forget you those “advanced grammar’”classes? When would you ever need to know the difference between something so esoteric? (Personally, I vowed to forget all of this after my ninth-grade English class. It worked until college dragged it out of me).

Well, if you are your own writer and editor, knowing as much about grammar as possible is always useful. And, since we’ve exhausted debate about Oxford commas and semicolons, this column is taking a turn for the esoteric as we focus on the three little letters that can increase your Scrabble score: -ing. The -ing suffix is surprisingly more complex than it seems and is classified into two categories: present participles and gerunds.

Present participles

Present participles are fickle beasts. They’re defined as “verbal adjectives” but have more functions than either of the two.

They can be used as part of continuous (past, present, future, conditional). For example:

  • She is eating.
  • They will be coming.
  • They were waiting.
  • It would have been raining.

They can be used after words of perception. For example:

  • He saw her sleeping in her bed.
  • We watched them acting out a scene.
  • I didn’t hear him playing his guitar in the next room.
  • I would like to watch you cooking.

They can also be used after verbs of movement, action, or position. For example:

  • He runs listening to music.
  • She paints looking at the subject.
  • On the grass, I lay listening to the sounds of nature.

And finally, they can be used as adjectives. For example:

  • This post is super exciting!
  • My life is so boring.
  • Did you see that amazing performance?


Gerunds are less fickle, but just as esoteric. They’re described as “verbal nouns” because they’re literally nouns formed from verbs. For example, the gerund form of the verb “fight” is “fighting.”

They can be used as the subject of a sentence. For example:

  • Drinking recklessly is dangerous.
  • Killing people is wrong.

After prepositions:

  • I am okay at writing.
  • Who is the best at climbing the rope?

After specific verbs:

  • I like talking.
  • I hate crying.

And also as compound nouns. For example:

  • She needed driving lessons.
  • My father is enthusiastic about bird-watching.

Why do I need to know this?

I asked this same question at 14 and I ask it to this day until I remember: this is knowledge about your job! Writers, editors, grammar nerds, pedants, and publishers need to know the intricacies of grammar. Why do you need to make the distinction? Well, if you are able to pick out the differences between the two, you can avoid grammar gaffes that often go unnoticed even by seasoned editors. A neat trick: a gerund always functions as a noun.

Want to check if you know your stuff? Take our quiz here:

Grammar Quiz: Gerund or Present Participle

By Emily E. Steck

Is this -ing word a gerund or present participle?

  • 1. Gerund or Present Participle:

    By Emily E. Steck

    Working efficiently is required in the restaurant business.

  • 1. Answer:

    By Emily E. Steck

    Working is a noun. Therefore, this is a gerund.

  • 2. Gerund or Present Participle:

    By Emily E. Steck

    Are we going to the skating party?

  • 2. Answer

    By Emily E. Steck

    It is a present participle because it is being used as an adjective. 

  • 3. Gerund or Present Participle:

    By Emily E. Steck

    Waving their hands, the audience cheered the winner. 

  • 3. Answer

    By Emily E. Steck

    This is a present participle as it is qualifying the noun "audience." 

  • 4. Gerund or Present Participle:

    By Emily E. Steck

    Are you afraid of speaking the truth?

  • 4. Answer

    By Emily E. Steck

    Speaking is a noun that is the object of the preposition. It is a gerund.

  • 5. Gerund or Present Participle:

    By Emily E. Steck

    The woman was in a beginning spinning class.

  • 5. Answer

    By Emily E. Steck

    Beginning is a present participle because it functions as an adjective. 

Image credit: Ian

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