A verbal is a noun or an adjective formed from a verb. Writers sometimes make mistakes by using a verbal in place of a verb or by confusing different types of verbals. There are three types of verbals: the participle (acts as an adjective), the gerund (acts as a noun) and the infinitive (also acts as a noun).

The fundamental difference between verbals and other nouns and adjectives is that verbals can take objects, as in the following example:

Building a house is complicated.

The noun phrase a house is the direct object of the verbal building, which acts a noun rather than a verb.

The participle

There are two types of participle: present and past.

A present participle is an adjective formed from a verb and the suffix ing, in some cases doubling the final consonant. For example:

  • think becomes thinking
  • fall becomes falling
  • run becomes running (double final consonant)

The second type of participle, the past participle, is a little more complicated as not all verbs form the past tense regularly. The following highlighted words are all past participles:

  • the sunken ship
  • a ruined city
  • a misspelled word

Note that only the past participles of transitive verbs can be used as adjectives. Unlike other verbals, past participles do not take objects (unless they are part of a compound verb).

The gerund

A gerund is a noun formed from a verb and the suffix ing just as is the case for present participles. The fundamental difference is that a gerund is a noun, while a participle is an adjective:

I enjoy running. (Running is a noun acting as the direct object of the verb enjoy.)
Stay away from running water. (Running is an adjective modifying the noun water.)

Using verbals

There are two common difficulties associated with verbals. The first is that since verbals look like verbs, they are sometimes used to write sentence fragments, as in the following examples:

  • [WRONG] Oh, to find true love!
  • [WRONG] Jimmy, swimming the most important race of his life.

The second difficulty is a very fine point that many editors no longer enforce. Although they have the same form, gerunds and present participles are different parts of speech and need to be treated differently. For example, consider the following sentences:

  • I admire the woman finishing the report.
  • I admire the woman’s finishing the report.

In the first example, finishing is a participle modifying the noun woman: in other words, the writer admires the woman, not what she is doing. In the second example, finishing is a participle modified by the possessive noun woman’s. The writer admires not the woman herself but the fact that she is finishing the report.

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© Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa
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