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What Is the Difference Between a Participle and a Gerund?

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  • Written By: Thomma Grindstaff
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2014
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Both a participle and a gerund are classified as verbals, which, in English grammar, are defined as verbs that operate in a sentence as if they were other parts of speech. The difference between these two verbals lies in their function in a sentence. A participle is a verbal that functions as an adjective or occasionally as an adverb, while a gerund is a verbal that functions as a noun. Participles can end in -ing, -ed, or -en, and gerunds end in -ing.

Verbals, as their designation suggests, originate from verbs. As such, they convey either states of being or states of action. Both a participle and a gerund might take the form of one word. A participle and a gerund might also take the form of phrases. Participles in phrases act as modifiers, while gerunds in phrases function as subjects, direct objects or objects of prepositions.

Present participles function in sentences as adjectives or adverbs, and they end in -ing. An example of a present participle occurring as a single word in a sentence is as follows: “The woman stroked the purring cat.” In this sentence, “purring,” the present participle, functions as an adjective and modifies the word “cat.” A present participle may also take the form of a phrase, as in this example: “The dog barking at the car was recaptured by its owner.” “Barking at the car” is a present participial phrase that modifies the word “dog.”

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Several endings, including -ing, -ed or -en, are possible for past participles. In the example “The burned meat sizzled in the pan,” the past participle is the single word “burned,” which functions as an adjective and modifies the word “meat.” When employed as a phrase, a past participle can manifest as follows: “Chosen from among many contestants, the beauty pageant winner was delighted.” Here, “chosen from among many contestants” is the past participial phrase, which functions as an adjective that modifies “beauty pageant winner.”

A participle and a gerund can both take the form of single words or phrases. As single words, gerunds can function either as subjects, direct objects or objects of prepositions. In the sentence “Hiking is his favorite outdoor sport,” the gerund “hiking” appears as the subject of the sentence. If the sentence reads “His favorite outdoor sport is hiking,” then the gerund “hiking” becomes the direct object. The gerund “hiking” is the object of a preposition when the sentence reads, “He will get in great shape by hiking.”

As phrases, gerunds can also function as subjects, direct objects or objects of prepositions. The gerund phrase “reading a good book” functions as the subject of the sentence “Reading a good book is one of life's greatest pleasures.” The same gerund phrase functions as the direct object when the sentence is “Life's greatest pleasure is reading a good book.” The gerund phrase “reading a good book” becomes the object of a preposition in the sentence “One can find inspiration by reading a good book.”

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