April 01, 2007

Ban the harmless gerund?

I recently encountered a new prescriptive prohibition, even madder than the rest, and hitherto quite unknown to me. This one says (if you can believe this): don't use gerunds. Said Robert J. Robinson on the Writing Program Administration listserve on February 27:

I have been content witht the classic (and quite basic) definition of a gerund as a noun form of a verb. I normally caution writers to avoid certain things regarding gerunds. Most specifically not using them at the beginning of a sentence and using the proper possessive case. In my full time career as a copywriter, I have suddenly run across a boss who is adamantly opposed to any gerund. I would like to present a brief argument for the effective use of gerunds...any suggestions?

What the hell is going on here? A boss who is just opposed to any gerund on principle? This has taught me that some people suffer under even more stupid and incompetent bosses than Dilbert's. What can one do to help poor Mr Robinson? We are merely Language Log, not the cosa nostra; we cannot arrange for this insane gerund-hating boss to be offed. We can but provide some facts and helpful pointers he might draw to his boss's attention.

1. English has no gerund form per se; what it has is a single form of the paradigm that does something like the work of the Latin present participle and something like the work of the Latin gerund. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language Rodney Huddleston and I call that form the gerund-participle.

2. The gerund-participle has the distinction of being completely regular in its inflectional form for every verb that has participles at all: even for the weird copular verb be, the formation is perfectly predictable: add -ing to the plain form of the verb.

3. The gerund-participle is so extraordinarily profligate in its multiple uses that Arnold Zwicky and I once listed (in addition to eight different uses of -ing suffixing in lexical word formation) 25 distinguishable syntactic constructions in which the gerund-participle is used. The chances of a writer being able to complete a page without using any of these 25 constructions are just about zero.

4. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using gerunds in good writing, there never has been, and no respectable book known to me has ever even hinted at such a thing.

5. They are common at the beginnings of sentences, too.

What on earth the boss could have been concerned about is still quite unclear to me. One can only guess. (It probably isn't worth trying to contact him and ask; people just get all shirty and defensive, can't provide examples or justifications, and finally get angry at linguists; we find it's best not to tangle with the real wild-eyed grammar grouches.) One well known worry about the gerund-participle is that a subjectless gerund-participial clause can be used as an adjunct, and when it is thus used by an inexpert writer we are often left hanging in space without an understood subject (this is known as the dangling participle). This example occurred in in The Economist (October 11th, 2003, page 85), in a book review about a biography of John Clare, a poet who was the untutored son of an agricultural laborer:

Being desperately poor, paper was always scarce — as was ink.

There's no subject for being here, and that gives us a moment of double-take as we try to figure out the interpretation (only human beings can be financially underprivileged, so we need a reference to a person, but instead we get a reference to writing materials).

However, this dangling participle problem is not what got discussed on the WPA reading list. It was gerund-participial clauses as subjects they were talking about. Even Joseph Williams, author of the excellent Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press), feels obliged to say this:

About the only thing to say against gerunds at the beginning of a sentence is that such a sentence opens with an abstract nominalization. Often (though not always) a bad start.

Abstract? Let's get clear about just how abstract this is. The sentence Shopping is fun! has a gerund-participial clause (albeit only one word long) as its main clause subject, and even Barbie could understand that.

It sometimes seems to me that Americans, though they are the citizens of what is in some ways the freest and most democratic country the world has ever seen, simply cannot grasp the idea of free choice and personal discretion. They leap immediately to bans, blocks, prohibitions, and punitive edicts. Garrison Keillor reports having his radio show banned because the word breast was once uttered on it; an engaging book for young people is all but killed by school librarians because (in a way integral to the plot) it contains the word scrotum; the New York City council has enacted a ban on the word nigger (I already gave my views on the topic here); and in general, as Arnold Zwicky points out, the response to anyone doing anything a bit too much is to decree that they should be stopped from ever doing it at all. I have encountered several students now who were taught in the Los Angeles school system that it is an error if they do not erase from their writing every word that is grammatically optional (that is, that every word not required is forbidden). So grammar, the vast complex of subtle and delicate constraints on what makes sentences properly formed in a language, is reduced to a set of don'ts. Not dos, mark you; just don'ts. Don't split infinitives, don't use the passive, and don't use adjectives or adverbs. And now, because some boss saw a couple of sentences that may have begun with gerund-participial clauses he did not like, we have the newest prohibition: ban the gerund-participle, or ban it at the beginning of clauses. Madness.

And if the boss himself doesn't sometimes begin clauses with gerund-participial clauses himself, I'll eat a live adverb. Using gerund-participial clauses as subjects is something that people do every day, even in conversation. You just saw it done, in the previous sentence.

[Thanks to Elizabeth Abrams for the reference.] Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 1, 2007 12:37 AM