Gerund structure

Gerunds can occur in three different constructions in English: (a) as the subject of a sentence, (b) as verb complements (V + G) and (c) as objects of a preposition (Prep + O). Likewise, infinitives can occur in three different constructions: (a) as the subject of a sentence, (b) as a verb complement (V + I), and (c) as complement of an object (V + O + I). Gerunds and infinitives occur in several different constructions in English. The analysis is limited to the verb + complement (V + G and V+ I/V + O + I) constructions because it is these constructions that cause the most confusion for students. The generation of the gerund or the infinitive in these latter three constructions depends on the head verb choice. For example,

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  1. I want to go to the movies.
  2. I want going to the movies.
  3. She enjoys working in the library.
  4. She enjoys to work in the library.

It is readily recognized sentences (1) and (3) as being grammatically correct sentences in English; likewise, items (2) and (4) are ungrammatical in English. However, there are some verbs that can trigger either gerund or infinitive constructions with relatively little difference in meaning.

  1. He loves to walk in the rain.
  2. He loves walking in the rain.

Both sentences (5) and (6) are grammatically correct sentences in English. A native speaker of English may recognize a subtle semantic difference between sentences (5) and (6). This intuitive difference is not part of our study. Finally, there are some verbs which take both the infinitive and gerund constructions but there is a significant difference. There is observed the semantic difference between items (7) and (8).

  1. He stopped smoking.
  2. He stopped to smoke.

Sentence (7) indicates that the man has kicked the habit of smoking; whereas, sentence (8) conveys the message that the man stopped what he was doing in order to have a cigarette. English second language grammar textbooks frequently provide extensive, but by no means exhaustive, lists of verbs that generate the various constructions. The students must learn to manage these lists, much as they must learn to manage the seemingly endless lists of irregular verbs. Because of the overlap in these verb + complement structures, it is not uncommon for students to produce frequent errors

The distribution of gerund complements

The aim of this part is to review the distribution of gerund complements, with examples and comments on usage.

  1. Gerund complements as Direct Objects

There is a considerable number of verbs which take ing complements as Direct Objects.

Many of them also accept infinitival Direct Objects. Here is a list of verbs which accept gerund Direct Objects, but with which an infinitive complement is infrequent or not available.

(1) A. a. avoid, adore, bear, chance (= risk), contemplate, dread, dislike, detest, drop, end

up, enjoy, escape, evade, feign, finish, give up, keep, leave off, miss, postpone, put off, play, practice, risk, resume, renounce, shirk, can’t resist, help, stand, grudge;

  1. condemn, consider(= think over), justify, ensure, include, entail, necessitate, encourage, defer, delay, excuse, pardon, defend, detest, support, sanction, oppose, criticize, favour.
  2. a. resent, regret (also + inf) grasp, perceive, repent, deplore, ignore, care (about), bear in mind, mind, reveal, discover, disclose ;
  3. admit, emphasize, explain, mention, announce, point out, verify, mean, acknowledge, certify, testify, doubt, deny, imagine, imply, etc.

Class A contains verbs that are typically followed by the gerund, verbs in class B have an alternative that complement construction.

(2) a. They certified his being insane.

  1. They certified that he was insane.
  2. I imagined John eating the apple quickly.

The fact that the gerund may alternate with that complement means that the gerund may have a propositional interpretation with these verbs. Following Portner (1994), we assumed that gerunds basically denote propositions, understood as sets of situations, rather than sets of possible words. Object gerunds may also denote facts (when the main clause predicate is active) or events, facts and events having in common the fact that they are more concrete occurrences.

(3) a. He regrets/ deplores accidentally killing his dog.

  1. Mary always enjoyed going to the Opera.

Few of the verbs in (1) are verbs of obligatory subject control, which word always take a PRO-ing complement; examples are resist, finish, leave off, resume, keep on, as well as aspectual.

(4) a. *I left off his writing the essay.

  1. *I resumed his writing the essay.

Most verbs in (1) accept different subjects in the matrix and complement clause, and then the subject assumes Possessive or Accusative form:

(5) Poss-ing

  1. Nothing in the accident justified their grounding the aircraft.
  2. And maybe you won’t mind my saying that you’re getting a little old for studying.
  3. I don’t mind his coming whenever he likes.

Accusative. (6) a. I cannot help the dreams coming.

  1. He replied that he should certainly support every nation being allowed to govern itself.
  2. The parents did not mind the news becoming public.
  3. Do you mind me saying it?

Allen (1959) mentions that deny, postpone, risk allow only a possessive complement, rejecting the Accusative structure:

(7) I couldn’t deny his / *him having made a reasonable excuse.

As to the preference for the Possessive or the Accusative. in object position, the Longman Grammar (1999: 750) has got the following to say: “In spite of a prescriptive tradition favouring the possessive form, the objective case must be considered the unmarked choice for the post-verbal noun-phrase in the pattern verb + NP + ing-clause. […] When both the objective and the possessive forms are permitted, the possessive option focuses attention on the action described in the in clause. In contrast, use of the objective form emphasizes the person doing the action.”

Another difference between the Accusative. and the Accussative complement, already discussed above is that the Poss-ing is understood as a definite nominal, referring to a definite (presupposed) event, while the Acc-ing may also refer to an indefinite event, when it is embedded under a non-active-predicate, as in (8d). A definite interpretation of the Acc-ing complement is also available, under active predicates, as in (8b).

(8) a. Mary didn’t enjoy John’s coming to visit her.

  1. Mary didn’t enjoy John coming to visit her.

This interpretative contrast, suggests that Poss-ing gerunds are interpreted as DPs headed by a silent definite article, which secures reference to a known event, therefore, a presuppositional interpretation. The silent D of the Acc-ing complement may be indefinite, allowing a definite reading as a result of the factive context.

Where the Su of the complement is the same as that of the main clause, a PRO-ing complement is used, as in the following examples.

(9) a. I could hardly avoid (*my) running into him.

  1. I gave up (*my) smoking.
  2. I couldn’t resist (*my) buying such lovely apples.
  3. He could not help looking youthful and calm and debonair.
  4. He had sometimes envisaged telling her everything and making her his confessor and his judge.
  5. He narrowly missed being seriously hurt, if not killed.
  6. Andrew had by now almost finished dealing with the swing.

Kiparsky (1970) mentioned that the verbs listed under (1) Ba. above, which are active verbs, optionally allow a possessive of the same person as the subject to be inserted between the main verb and the ing complement, resulting in the alternation between the Poss-ing and PRO-ing complement.

(10) a. They resented (their) having a young family to support.

  1. He deplored (his) going blind.
  2. I recall (my) having seen her.

An arbitrary generic interpretation of the subject, roughly understood as the pronoun ‘one’ is also possible:

(11) a. The law doesn’t even mention killing oneself.

  1. They abhor abusing oneself in public.

As already discussed in the previous chapter, ‘public verbs’ dispose of a second type of uncontrolled Su selection in the complement clause, the unspecified subject’, a featureless DP, whose content is retrievable in a given context. Examples of ‘Public verbs’ have tentatively been listed in (1) Ab and Bb, following the suggestions of Thompson (1973); verbs in Aa and Ba are ‘private verbs’ accepting only controlled readings.

(12) a. The report advocated setting up day-training-college.

  1. The experiment justified changing the normal method of attack.
  2. He advocated making war upon the brewers.

The gerund construction brings out several characteristics of true. [+ Active] verbs. We have already mentioned the alternation between a lexical and a null subject with active verbs, even when the embedded subject is the same as a main clause argument, so a PRO subject could have been used. An example appears in (13a, b) below. Since, with these verbs a lexical subject may potentially intervene between the main verb and the ing-predicate of the subordinate clause, these verbs tolerate apparent ‘doubling violations, as in (13c):

(13) a. Ed resented his getting photographed drunk.

  1. Ed resented getting photographed drunk.
  2. Ed’s resenting getting photographed drunk is just too funny.

Moreover active verbs have the property of freely combining with perfect gerunds; not all of the other verbs listed in (1) have this possibility, as apparent in the contrasts below:

(14) a. I deplored/resented having been given this commission.

  1. I *avoided / *evaded having been given this commission.

Kiparsky (1970: 361) notices the existence of verbs which allow for a active, as well as a non active interpretation of their complement clause (e.g. announce, anticipate, admit, emphasize, mention, deduce, a.o.). It is interesting that, with this verb sub-class, the gerund complement is normally interpreted as active, while the clause is indifferent to activity.

(15) a. He will mention his having read it in the paper.

  1. He won’t mention that he had read it in the paper.

With the verb explain the gerund complement and that complement differs in meaning, again along the lines of a active / non – active interpretation. Compare:

(16) a. I explained Adam’s refusing to come to the phone.

  1. I explained that he was watching his favourite TV show.

In (16a) the subordinate clause refers to a proposition regarded as a fact. Explain, in this case means ‘give reasons for’. When the object is a that clause, as in (16b), it can be read as non-active with explain that S meaning ‘say that S to explain X’.

Verbs followed either by ing or by infinitive complements constitute an interesting class, as this syntactic difference sometimes correlates with a difference in the meaning of the two constructions.

As remarked in Longman grammar (1999: 757) “in general a to-clause has a meaning that is more hypothetical or potential than the meaning of the corresponding ing-clause (with the same verb)…” This general difference naturally follows from the properties of Inflection in infinitive and gerund clauses. With some exceptions, control infinitive have irrealis, future Tense, while gerunds have realis tense. No wonder then that the infinitive is associated with hypothetical or potential events.