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Present Participles and Verbal Nouns

Present Participles

When a verb phrase consists of the auxiliary verb be and a lexical verb, the lexical verb has the form of a present participle.

  • I am coming.
  • The girls were swimming in the lake.
  • Who was that you were talking to?
  • I was only trying to help.
  • What are you asking me to do?
  • The girl was staring out of the window.
  • I have been wanting to speak to you for ages.

Present participles always end in -ing. Usually the -ing is simply added to the base form of the verb:

  • feel — feeling
  • walk — walking
  • fill — filling
  • drink — drinking
  • hang — hanging
  • break — breaking
  • cry — crying
  • comb — combing
  • shoot — shooting
  • watch — watching
  • say — saying
  • turn — turning

Sometimes there is a slight change to be made to the base form before the -ing is added, such as the dropping of a final -e or the doubling of a final consonant:

  • make — making
  • shine — shining
  • tie — tying
  • tap — tapping
  • stir —  stirring
  • stare — staring
  • come — coming
  • die — dying
  • swim — swimming
  • sit — sitting
  • bite — biting
  • chase — chasing
  • lie — lying
  • run — running
  • sob — sobbing

The auxiliary verb be and the present participles of lexical verbs form what are known as continuous tenses or progressive tenses. Continuous tenses describe an activity or state that continues for a period of time, as opposed to an action that happens just at one moment.

  • I was having a bath when the phone rang.
  • Mother was waiting for me in the garden when I arrived.
  • Im waiting for a friend. I’ve been waiting for her for over half an hour.
  • The boys were playing football in the street, but a policeman told them to stop.
  • Why are you looking so sad these days?
  • Our son has been having nightmares ever since he watched that horror movie.
  • It was raining heavily when we got back home.
  • She was laughing loudly as she ran out of the room.

Sometimes a verb in a continuous tense refers to something that is going to happen in the future or to something that might have happened but didn’t:

  • am leaving tomorrow morning.
  • We are going to France for our holidays this year.
  • We were going to France but we changed our minds and went to Spain instead.

Present participles can be used without auxiliary verbs.

  • Laughing loudly, she ran out of the room.
  • I got absolutely soaked while waiting for my friend.
  • Crying with joy, she hugged and kissed him.
  • The children stood at the window, watching the cars go by.
  • While painting the ceiling, I fell and broke my arm.
  • The man talking to Nancy is the head teacher.

Present participles can be used as adjectives.

  • smiling baby
  • hunting lion
  • boiling water
  • an interesting theory
  • The car was crushed by falling rocks.
  • Our visit to the TV studio was a fascinating experience.

Verbal Nouns

Verbal nouns also end in -ing. In fact, all verbal nouns have exactly the same spellings as the corresponding present participles.

Like present participles, verbal nouns describe actions and activities:

  • Fighting about something so trivial is Just silly.
  • Smoking is bad for you, but jogging is good for you.
  • I really enjoy swimming and diving.
  • Fox-hunting has been banned in Scotland.
  • Her laughing like that frightened the baby.
  • Thank you for helping me.
  • By wearing this badge, you show your support for the world’s poorest people.

Since both present participles and verbal nouns describe actions and activities, the meanings of present participles and verbal nouns are very similar. But since the former are verbs and the latter are nouns, the ways they are used in sentences are slightly different.

A present participle may follow an auxiliary verb as part of a verb phrase:

  • She was singing loudly as she walked along the street.

Whenever a present participle appears without an accompanying auxiliary verb, it will always be possible to make an equivalent sentence which includes a subject and an auxiliary:

  • While painting the ceiling, I fell and broke my arm. OR
  • While I was painting the ceiling, I fell and broke my arm.
  • The man talking to Nancy is the headmaster. OR
  • The man who is talking to Nancy is the headmaster.

On the other hand, verbal nouns behave grammatically like other nouns. For example, a verbal noun may be the subject or object of a verb:

  • Singing is fun. [subject]
  • I like singing. [object]

A verbal noun may follow a preposition or a determiner.

  • There is no point in staying here any longer.
  • By refusing to help them, you have caused them a great deal of inconvenience.
  • Her singing at the top of her voice first thing in the morning really annoyed me.
  • Their agreeing to help us at all was quite a surprise.

The preposition may be part of a phrasal verb:

  • She kept on saying that she wanted to go home.
  • The newsreader carried on talking in spite of the disruption behind him.

Both present participles and verbal nouns may be followed by adverbs and direct and indirect objects:

  • Singing tunelessly [adverb], she wandered through the office.
  • Refusing them [indirect object] any assistance [direct object], she simply walked out of the meeting.
  • Her singing tunelessly annoyed her colleagues.
  • Her refusing them assistance caused them a great deal of inconvenience.

Verbal nouns, but not present participles, may be preceded by adjectives:

  • Her tuneless [adjective] singing annoyed her colleagues.

And verbal nouns, but not present participles, may be followed by the preposition of.

  • Some bending of the rules may be necessary.
  • We waited outside Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard.

Present Participles and Verbal Nouns used as Adjectives

Both present participles and verbal nouns can be used as adjectives, but there is an important difference in their meanings.

present participle used as an adjective describes what someone or something is doing at the moment.

  • smiling baby (= a baby who is smiling)
  • hunting lion (= a lion that is hunting)
  • boiling water (= water that is boiling)
  • singing birds (= birds that are singing)

verbal noun used as an adjective, on the other hand, describes what someone does in general or what something is used for:

  • dancing teacher (= a person who teaches dancing)
  • washing machine (= a machine for washing clothes)
  • cooking pots (= pots used for cooking)
  • racing car (= a car used in motor-races)

Note that when the adjective is a present participle, the main stress is placed on the following noun:

  • a smiling ‘baby
  • a hunting ‘lion

When the adjective is a verbal noun, the stress is on the adjective:

  • a ‘washing machine
  • a ‘hunting dog (= a dog used in hunting)

Notice also that when the adjective is a verbal noun, the adjective and the following noun may sometimes be hyphenated and treated as a single compound noun:

  • a ‘washing-machine
  • a ‘racing-car

Verbal nouns, being descriptions of actions or activities, are not normally used in the plural, though it is sometimes possible to make them plural:

  • I can’t keep track of all his comings and goings.

But many verbal nouns have developed into full nouns that describe the results of someone’s actions or activity or something that is used for some purpose:

  • I can’t read your writing.
  • This is a reproduction of a painting by Picasso.
  • There was a narrow opening in the wall.
  • We need more padding in those cushions.
  • The wind blew all our fencing down.

As full nouns, they are often used in the plural:

  • I like Picasso’s paintings.
  • There were several narrow openings in the wall.
  • The book is a collection of the sayings of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
  • They are. not taking any bookings for the concert till next week.
  • They stared at us as if we were strange beings from outer space.

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