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The -ing Form
This article was first posted on the web c.2000.
It is not the purpose here to give a complete explanation of all aspects of the -ing form; only to draw attention to some useful principles that are usually neglected.
1. Which verbs can be followed by the -ing form?
One of the most important simple principles that grammarians tend to miss is the one that explains what verbs take the -ing form. The method of almost all books on English grammar is to give a list of such verbs. This implies that it is completely arbitrary whether a verb takes the -ing form or not, that God has closed his eyes and pricked off verbs here and there at random with a pin. Students are thus cut off from insight into a basic pattern of meaning, and confronted with a lifeless series of unconnected words which they have to learn by heart. They are pushed into a purely mechanical process that misses the essential truth that learning languages is learning about meanings and their logical connections to other meanings. It is significant of the impractical arbitrariness of these lists that there are almost no two of them that are the same, even where the most common of the verbs used with -ing are concerned. note 1
can always mean, among other
things, a verb-noun, an
'action-thing'. note 2
If you can say I (etc.) - verb - it (e.g. I like it), you can use I - verb -ing (e.g. I like eating).
Avoid it. Avoid stepping on the grass if you can.
Do you mind it? Do you mind shutting the window?
He couldn't risk it. He couldn't risk hurting the children.
This is a principle virtually without exceptions. But naturally there are many verbs that in practice are never used with -ing simply because nobody ever wants to express that 'action' meaning of -ing with them. The process is always self-regulating, so to speak - one says whatever makes sense. We can look at some examples of the use of -ing with verbs that appear on few, if any, of most grammarians' lists.
They have added mistreating prisoners to the list of charges.
I can't really afford living like this.
The council no longer allows smoking in public buildings.
aim - (It is hard to think of a sensible example of -ing being used with this verb. Can you?)
The club arranges dancing for the pensioners.
The chairman claimed breaking the strike as a great triumph.
I don't count making money as a virtue.
The investigators discovered cheating on a huge scale.
We must encourage planting earlier in the season.
I thank travelling for teaching me much about the human condition.
The principle applies equally to phrasal verbs, both the 'prepositional' type and the 'adverbial particle' type.
She insisted on helping me.
Bill's putting off writing till tomorrow. (Or: ...putting writing off..)
The managing director picked out idling on the job as the main cause of the declining profits.
turn up - (Another example of a verb I am unable to think of any sensible use for with -ing.)
(Notice that in the second and third sentences above, an it used instead of the -ing form would come between putting and off and between picked and out.)
There are uses of -ing which appear to contradict the it-substitution principle. Two examples of them involve expressions that both have the sense of continue: carry on and go on. One can say Carry on talking, but not *Carry on it. That, however, is merely because unemphasized pronouns are never used at the end of phrasal verb phrases (e.g. in a dictionary one looks it up, not *looks up it). With go on one cannot even say *go it on. This again can be explained simply. One does not *go a thing, while with the sense of continue one does not say *go on it for the same reason that one does not say *Carry on it.
2. No grammatical analysis of different -ing forms is necessary
When they discuss how to use the -ing form, grammarians as a rule insist on distinguishing between 'present participles', 'gerunds', 'gerundives', and 'true nouns'. There is no need to do this; in fact, worrying about such distinctions is very confusing for many students of English. All one needs to know and remember are the several different ways the –ing form can be used. Categorisation like the above is quite unnecessary, and indeed merely adds an extra burden of knowledge to be memorised without serving any useful purpose. It needs to be recognised that grammatical analysis is usually no more than what one might call wisdom after the event – you can never carry out a grammatical analysis until you know the meaning of the sentence you want to analyse. At that stage grammatical analysis becomes pointless.
Here is a list of most of the different ways in which –ing can be used. It can be used like this:
1. I am thinking (about Nina). [Finite Continuous -ing]
2. Thinking (about her) makes me happy. [Subject -ing]
3. I like thinking (about her). [Object -ing]
4. I never get tired of thinking (about her). [Preposition + -ing]
5. I like Nina thinking about me. ['Double Object': Object 1 (Nina) - Object 2 (-ing)]
6. I'm sure there are other people thinking about her. [Predicative Adjective -ing]
7. I like thinking people, and Nina is a thinking sort of person. [Attributive Adjective -ing]
You can see from these examples, I think, that the –ing form is remarkably flexible. So long as you are aware that these are the possibilities, you can make -ing mean more or less whatever you want it to mean within those possibilities, without worrying about its grammatical definition. (You don't really even need the brief analysis I have added after each sentence above, but I have provided them in case you find it easier to learn in a 'categorising' sort of way – though I don't recommend it.) Don't forget that you cannot make any grammatical analysis before you understand the meaning. Since the meaning is the only thing we are really interested in - if we are sensible - there is seldom much point in pursuing grammatical abstractions once we have grasped the meaning. Let us consider various examples of the use of -ing.
The phrase boiling water is, by itself, ambiguous. boiling could be a description of the water (it's boiling); or it could be referring to what somebody is doing to the water. But if we say We need boiling water, it is clear we mean water that is already boiling; while if we say Start boiling water, it is clear we mean that somebody should boil water.
In the phrase a steaming kettle, a obviously belongs to kettle, not to steaming; in the same way, in Pour the boiling water into this pot, the refers to water, not to boiling, and we are again talking about water that is already boiling. But suppose we want to say, using the -ing form, that we recommend that somebody should boil water every morning. We cannot say We recommend the boiling water every morning, because although that is a perfectly good and sensible sentence, we have just seen that it must mean something quite different from what we want to express. What we have to say is: We recommend the boiling of water every morning. Now the belongs to boiling, not to water.
But we should never forget that the overall meaning of a particular piece of language depends on the particular combination of the particular meanings used. For instance, the two sentences
The Red Cross stopped shooting prisoners.
The Red Cross stopped the shooting of prisoners.
mean two quite different things. The first sentence tells us that the Red Cross had been shooting prisoners. The second is almost certainly intended to mean that somebody else - not the Red Cross - had been shooting prisoners, and the Red Cross stopped this somebody else doing any more shooting. In other words, in one sentence the Red Cross shoots prisoners, and in the other it doesn't.
But we must not draw from these two sentences the general conclusion that when there is no the, the -ing action is carried out by the subject of the main verb, but that when there is a the, the -ing action is carried out by somebody else. For instance, we can say:
I support sending more aid to poor countries.
This does not mean that I myself am going to send more aid to poor countries; it only means that I think that this is a good thing for people to do. But if we say instead I support the sending of more aid..., it makes no difference at all to the basic meaning of the sentence, and that is because of the particular meaning of support. In the next three sentences, on the other hand, with no the in the first, but a the in the other two, you will see that in every case it is I who performs the -ing action:
I hate decorating. I don't mind the actual painting. But I can't stand all the getting ready beforehand.
Consider also the next two sentences.
I don't like helping politicians.
I don't like lying politicians.
They are identical in every respect except one. They both consist of I don't like -ing politicians. The difference between them is merely that one uses help- and the other uses ly-. Yet this is enough to make it clear that in the first sentence I do (or rather, don't want to do) the helping, while in the second the politicians do the lying. note 3
Shooting prisoners is barbaric.
The shooting prisoners broke out of the camp.
The shooting of prisoners is barbaric.
The shooting of the new recruits is not at all good.
Knowledge of history is rare among these people.
The knowledge of history among these people is remarkable.
A knowledge of history helps one to understand the situation.
I honour and admire the loving women who look after us so tenderly.
The wood is dry enough now for burning.
This part of the country is too hilly for cycling.
Is the water deep enough for diving?
(cf. She is too young for marrying. Is this a sensible sentence? I am not sure. It depends how one interprets it.)
I have seen several sinkings myself.
The beheadings were too awful to watch.
The guards opened fire on the escaping prisoners.
But there are two points that are worth mentioning here. One is that if there is an 'ordinary' noun which expresses the same idea as an -ing noun, the 'ordinary' noun rather than the -ing word is normally used.
He campaigns for the abolition [not abolishing] of torture [not torturing] throughout the world.
And do not be confused by -ing nouns that are not 'action-things' (not 'verb-nouns'), but 'ordinary' nouns. A painting and a meaning are examples of such words. He was in the middle of painting this painting when he died is an illustration of the two types being used together.
3. The -ing form or the infinitive?
Here again the grammatical explanations tend to become a mass of 'small' generalizations that are mostly untrue and miss the essential principle. This is that:
-ing emphasizes the action itself.
The infinitive (and non-ing generally) emphasizes some other aspect of the verb:
the fact, event, result, effect, achievement of the action.
It is impossible to describe the meaning of words completely accurately with words. In the end the only wholly correct indication of the meaning of words is the words themselves. But I think the two statements above are about as close as we can get to the truth about -ing and non-ing. Here are some examples of the difference.
I like to get up really early, around 5, as I can get so much more done in the day that way. But I have to confess I don't like actually getting up at that hour at all.
I prefer cycling to work. It's much more fun than sitting in car queues.
I prefer to cycle to work. It's good for me.
She was afraid to go near the edge, because she was afraid of falling off.
(It was not the action itself of going near the edge that she was afraid of - it was dangerous, and might result in disaster, but would not in itself hurt her; the action that would itself hurt her, and that she was afraid of, was falling off the edge.)
Very often it makes little or no practical difference whether one uses -ing or the infinitive. But in some contexts the difference is obvious and crucial. There is, for instance, a wholly logical reason why one cannot use an infinitive after enjoy. This is because one can only enjoy actions themselves; one cannot enjoy the fact or result of an action. The meaning of enjoy simply does not fit the meaning of the infinitive. (The same principle applies to loathe.) Consider, too, that we do not normally say I can smell something burn; we say I can smell something burning. And
Max saw Marie cross the road.
means something quite different from
Max saw Marie crossing the road.
In the first sentence Max finally saw Marie on the other side of the road, the crossing achieved, and she had presumably escaped the danger of the traffic. In the second sentence the emphasis is on the action of crossing itself, actually in the road. Perhaps the next moment Marie was run over by a bus. There is nothing in the sentence to tell us she was not.
Certainly there are problems with some verbs. Want is one of the most important examples. But it illustrates well how, on one hand, the basic principle is nearly always at work, and, on the other, how important the subtleties of exact meaning are. We can say They want it, so we can say
The plants want watering.
However, this is not at all the most common use of want. (The meaning is very close to the meaning of The plants need watering.) The common use of want is, of course, as in
I want to water the plants.
But when one says want to do..., one is talking of the wish to 'achieve', to accomplish something - not a feeling of concern with an 'action in itself'. When one says
I want that flower.
one expresses a wish for possession. That is not the same as a 'want to do' feeling, but it is not an -ing feeling either. It is only when want takes on a 'need' sort of feeling that it becomes logical to use -ing. But the effect of want having various different meanings is further illustrated by the fact that we can also say things like
I don't want you messing about in the garden and stepping on all the plants.
Try is another verb that shows how important the precise meaning of a word is. The try to do expression is very obviously about achievement, not about action in itself:
Try to protect these plants from frost.
But try it expresses the idea of 'experiment with', so just as we can say Try a richer compost on those plants, we can say
Try giving them less water.
When one explains the -ing or infinitive alternatives, it is important to use examples such as remember and forget. But it is doing learners a great disservice simply to state, as if it was just an arbitrary rule without reason, that -ing is used for actions before the remembering or forgetting (I don't remember posting the letter, but I think I must have) and the infinitive for acts after the remembering or forgetting (I'm afraid I forgot to post the letter). The most important part of the explanation is showing why remember and forget work like this. They are not some special case with their own peculiar rules. Whenever people remember or forget something (it), the something must be in the past. This is the very essence of the words' meaning. We cannot remember or forget a thing before we have experienced it. So the usage of remember and forget has to be as it is. Compare these words with one like anticipate. In the sense that we are concerned with here, the meaning is the opposite of remember, and so naturally the -ing form must mean actions after the anticipating (I don't anticipate having any difficulty at the customs). As practically always, the grammatical usage follows the logic of the meaning.
There are indeed several verbs whose use seems logically inconsistent. note 4 But learners of English should always be suspicious of statements that "you cannot use such and such a pattern with this verb”, or “use that verb in such and such a way". As often as not the statement is untrue. It may only be that situations where such language would be used are rather rare in real life, and the grammarian has failed to use enough imagination in thinking of them. And it would be a great pity to let any genuine inconsistencies make one lose sight of the overall basic principles that are undoubtedly at work and give insight into the language.
Note 1 The only sort of special list that verbs should appear in is an alphabetical one that shows, with examples, all the various types of expression that each verb can govern. For instance, suggest:
(a) She suggested going to a concert. [+ -ing]
(b) I suggested (that) we took/should take a taxi. [+ that + subjunctive]
(c) Please suggest where we should go. [+ interrogative + should/ought]
(d) "I suggest," said the prosecutor, "that you are lying." [+ that + indicative]
Seeing 'real life' associations of a word with other words is how one learns its exact meaning and how one remembers how it is used.
I compiled such a verb list in 1959, and it was possibly the first of its kind to be published when it appeared in 1967 in Cook, J.L., Gethin, A. & Mitchell, K., A new way to proficiency in English (Blackwell). The only other book I know of that contains such a list is Close, R.A., A reference grammar for students of English (Longman, 1975).
A.S.Hornby devised an elaborate system based on tables of all the possible patterns of English that verbs can be used in. Together with each pattern there was a list of all the verbs that can be used with it. Dictionaries were published in which each verb entry was given a number which referred to the pattern or patterns used with that verb. There could not be a more misguided approach. Again it is an abstract and lifeless way of thinking about the verbs, quite the wrong way round. The starting point should be the individual verb, which, together with the context, should trigger the usage that goes with it. But I do not advise anybody to learn the usage of the verbs by heart; only to remember its importance, to remember that in some ways it is very different from that of other European languages, and to remind yourself of how to use a particular verb whenever you are unsure.
There should, in fact, be no need for special lists of verbs with their patterns of use, neither of my kind nor any other kind. Any good dictionary, even quite a small one, should include the respective patterns (with examples) in the entry for each verb.
Note 2 There are -ing forms that seem to lack the 'action' element in some contexts, most obviously being and having. But the 'thing' element is always there, so there is no practical problem.
Note 3 This is a case where some grammarians might make the mistake of saying that the correct explanation is as follows: Help is a transitive verb, and therefore politicians is its object; lie is an intransitive verb, and therefore politicians cannot be its object.
But this is to put the matter the wrong way round. One can only decide to call help transitive and lie intransitive after one has understood the meaning of both words and context. The grammatical analysis does not give any information.
There are also grammarians who claim that in sentences like The Red Cross stopped the shooting of prisoners, shooting is a 'true noun', not a gerund. Do they say this because there is a definite article in front of it? But the in front of a word does not make a noun any more of a noun than it is without it. The word knowledge is no more or less a noun in any of the sentences Knowledge is power, Knowledge of history is rare among these people, The knowledge of history among these people is remarkable, or A knowledge of history helps one to understand the situation. In the same way, shooting remains a verb-noun, or an action-thing, whether it is as in Shooting prisoners is barbaric, or The shooting of prisoners is barbaric, or We must stop the shooting of prisoners. We would not usually say something like We must stop the shooting prisoners, because there shooting has become a verb-adjective, and the phrase means that the prisoners are doing the shooting. We saw the same sort of meaning in the phrase The boiling water..... above. Once again, grammatical analysis serves no useful purpose.
Note 4 Cease is just one example of such inconsistency. Stop, when used with roughly the same sense, cannot be followed by an infinitive. (stop followed by to + an infinitive means stop in order to). But cease is often followed by an infinitive, as well as by -ing. Yet "roughly" may be a very important point here. There are important differences even between these two verbs. If one is talking about someone walking along, one cannot say that he ceased instead of stopped. And a doctor fond of slightly eccentric speech would have to say Cease breathing (emphasis on action), not Cease to breath. The latter would sound like a command to die.
A rational explanation based on meaning can very often be found hiding beneath apparent grammatical inconsistencies.
Slightly edited, with revised layout, 21 April 2010
The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article.
The article is an edited extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark and published by Intellect (http://www.intellectbooks.com)
The English-Learning and Languages Review and its individual contributors assert their Copyright © on all the material published in it. Nevertheless, the Review gives permission for unlimited reproduction of the piece above, The –ing Form, or parts of it, on condition that: (1) acknowledgement is made of the source (2) no changes are made except with the Review’s permission (3) no restraint is imposed on further reproduction of the material (4) copies are not sold
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