Participles and Gerunds
Like infinitives, both participles and gerunds are nonfinite phrases. And, like infinitives, they are words that derive from – come from – verbs, and yet do not function as verbs.
Participles function either as adjectives or adverbs. Gerunds function as nouns.
Ivy loves dancing bears.
Jasper likes dancing.
Disturbed, the bear roared menacingly.
In the first sentence, dancing functions as an adjective – that is, it modify bears. Therefore, dancing is, in this case, a participle.
In the second sentence, when we ask ourselves what Jasper likes, the answer is that he likes dancing – this makes dancing the object of the verb. All objects are nouns; verbal nouns are gerunds, so in this case dancing is a gerund.
Now, what about the last sentence? How is the word disturbed functioning?
To determine that, ask yourself what it is doing, grammatically. Is it the main verb? (No, the main verb is roared.) Is it the subject? (No, that’s bear.) Well, what is it? If we think, we can see that disturbed is modifying – telling us something – about bear. (What kind of bear is it? Not a grizzly bear or a brown bear or a queasy bear, but a disturbed bear.)
And anything that modifies a noun is an adjective.
Okay, well: what sort of adjective?
That’s the key. When we look at it, we can see it comes from a verb – disturb – and that’s when we realize that this, too, is a verbal. In fact, this is a participle. (A perfect passive participle, but we’re not going to worry about too much about variations of participles.)
(What about menacingly, you ask? Excellent question. Menacingly looks like a participle at first glance, in that is a modifier that derives from a verb. But check its form. The –ly on the end there means that although this may have been at some point a participle, it has since become an actual adverb.)
The other important thing to remember about participles and gerunds is that they come from verbs, and still retain a verby-quality. By nature of this verby-quality, they are able to act sort of like verbs. Like infinitives, then, they can also take objects and (sometimes) subjects; they can have modifiers and complements. They can do almost anything a verb can do.
It’s also helpful to figure out their structure by back-transforming their sentences.
Elvis, having eaten all the pie in the house, decided to bake more.
Elvis [something] decided to bake more.
(Elvis has eaten all the pie in the house)
Hunting for his keys, Jack yelled at Ella sleeping upstairs.
(Something) Jack yelled at Ella (something)
(Jack hunts for his keys)
(Ella sleeps upstairs)
Importantly, in all these cases, notice, finding the understood subject of the embedded sentence gives us the word that the participle modifies. That’s a trick to remember.
What’s the Usage? Misplaced Modifiers/Dangling Participles
One problem that can arise with participial phrases or with participles in general is when the participle is not close to or next to the noun it modifies.
Have a look at these examples:
Shutting off the TV, the house grew silent.
The experiment was a failure, having read the instructions badly.
Sobbing, the police officer stared at the lost child.
Your participle, like all modifiers, has to be next to the word it modifies. For instance, if you want the word orange to modify truck, you put it next to truck, yes?
Sarah drives an orange truck.
Orange, Sarah drives a truck.
But somehow with participles, we lose our way with this rule, either leaving out (as in the first two examples above) the word being modified; or putting the participle very much too far from the word being modified, as with the wretched policeman in the third example.
Notice if we analyze the embedded sentence, we can see this more clearly:
Shutting off the TV, the house grew silent.
(Something) The house grew silent
(The house shut off the TV?) (Wait…)
To fix these, we have to either put the word being modified back into the sentence, or move the participial phrase:
Shutting off the TV, Polly listened to the suddenly quiet house.
Since we failed to read the instructions, our experiment was a disaster.
The police officer gaped at the sobbing child.
Gerunds, like participles, comes from verbs. The difference is that they act like nouns.
As nouns, gerunds can be subjects of sentences; objects of sentences; subject complements; or objects of prepositions in prepositional phrases.
Jogging exhausts me.
I love camping up at Devil’s Den.
Elvis likes to read books about baking pies.
Like participles, gerunds, though they are nouns, still retain some of their verby nature – that is, they too can form phrases and take, in those phrases, objects and other dependents.
Jogging marathons exhausts me.
Parker’s favorite sport is hunting quail in the high plains of Wyoming.
Gerund phrases can take subjects – these subjects are usually in the form of determiners, but can also be nouns:
Do you mind my choosing the restaurant?
Ivy liked Elvis driving the truck most of the way.