Ask the Editor: What is the difference between a gerund and a present participle, and how do I punctuate each correctly?

This is a column by Kira McFadden

Emlyn Chand asks:  When it comes to commas, I’m pretty good. However, there is one comma rule that has always managed to elude my understanding. Gerunds—that is “-ing” phrases. I’m always so confused about whether they’re needed, so I usually just end up doing it (or not doing it) on a whim. What are the rules for commas and “-ing” phrases? Example: I say, twisting a strand of hair around my finger, or, She weighed the options in her mind, examining each for its merit.

Kira answers:  

Gerunds always end in “-ing,” but not all “-ing” words are gerunds. All present participles also end in “-ing,” and sometimes make it difficult to tell them apart. So how do you differentiate between the two?

Because gerunds function as nouns, they will be subjects, subject compliments, direct objects, indirect objects, and objects of prepositions, whereas present participles complete progressive verbs or act as modifiers.

Examples of gerunds:

  • Since Abigail was thirteen, dancing has been her least favorite thing.

Dancing is the subject of the verb has been.

  • Abigail’s real passion is jogging.

Jogging is the subject complement of the verb is.

  • When Abigail ran by the high school, her friends realized her heart belonged to jogging.

Jogging is the object of the preposition to.

 

Examples of present participles:

  • A few months ago, Johnny and his friend were kicking the ball at Grayson Field.

Kicking is a present participle, which compliments the past progressive verb were kicking.

  • Johnny hates it when his friends go to the swimming pool without him.

Swimming is the present participle modifying pool.

 

Commas don’t always go with gerunds, however, and below is a basic list of when to use commas appropriately.

–          When separating things in a list or series (i.e., She liked kittens, hats, purses, and puppies).

–          Between two or more adjectives that independently identify a noun (i.e., His short, black hair was unevenly cut).

–          Before a conjunction between independent clauses (i.e., I’ll buy the coffee, but you should have asked that girl out).

–          After introductory words that begin a sentence (i.e., well, yes, no, why, etc.).

–          To offset nonessential clauses and nonessential participle phrases (i.e., The stump of the cherry tree, which my father tried to cut down, sprouts leaves every year [note that the clause can be removed and the sentence still makes sense]).

–          To offset expressions that interrupt a sentence (i.e., That was why the wizard, Alan, left us behind).

–          With dates and addresses (i.e.,Los Angeles,California).

 

Most of the time, gerunds are mistaken for an introductory participle phrase:

Example:

  • Kicking the ball as hard as he could, Johnny sucked in a deep breath.

The subject of the sentence is Johnny, and a comma should appear after the introductory participle phrase.

 

Example of a gerund at the beginning of a phrase:

  • Penning in beautiful handwriting can be done with practice.

The subject of the above sentence is “Penning in beautiful handwriting,” and therefore, a comma is not needed.

In the sentence, “Penning in beautiful handwriting, I focused as hard as I could on each letter,” however, “Penning in beautiful handwriting,” becomes an introductory phrase and modifies “I”.

Also note that when using participle phrases, a comma is not always needed depending on what the phrase is modifying.

 

Example:

  • She rubbed her hands together, preferring the motion to gloves.

Above, “preferring the motion to gloves” modifies “she” because of the comma’s presence. Therefore, “she” is the one who prefers the motion to gloves.

  • She rubbed her hands together preferring the motion to gloves.

Without the comma, her hands are preferring to be rubbed together and she is not the one making the choice of the action—her hands are. This does not make much sense; therefore, a comma is needed to help define the subject of the sentence.

 

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 


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