The various functions of Verb + ing

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Brief summary: the VERB + ing form can cause a lot of confusion when analysed. First of all we are familiar with this form as part of the verb structure commonly know as continuous or progressive like in

We are talking about the continuous form in class at the moment.

Here, structurally, the VERB + ing is combined with a form of the auxiliary verb BE. Whereas the auxiliary BE takes on all the grammatical ‘work’,  the VERB + ing never changes. In traditional grammar terminology it is called a participle, the ing participle or ‘present’ participle. Confusion sometimes arises, I believe, from the various semantical functions this participle – the form VERB + ing – can take.

Let’s look at some examples. In which sentences is the VERB + ing part of the verb structure and when is it used differently? In those cases where the VERB + ing is not part of the verb structure what is its function?

  1. We are working from home this year.
  2. Working from home has become more common because of the corona crisis.
  3. When they go lost in the forest they started calling for help.
  4. We were running in the forest when it started raining heavily.
  5. We are not learning anything about nutrition.
  6. Rioting groups clashed with the police.
  7. We have to wear face masks when we go shopping.
  8. Shopping is no fun these days.
  9. Wearing face masks is no fun either but necessary to protect us and others.
  10. The protesters were calling for fewer restrictions.
  11. People calling for fewer restrictions demonstrated in XXX.

Here some examples taken from the CDC text on who is at greater risk of severe illness from COVID 19

Evidence used to update the list of underlying medical conditions that increase a person’s risk of severe illness from COVID-19

Conditions were added to the list (if not already on the previous underlying medical conditions list [originally released in March 2020]) if evidence for an association with severe illness from COVID-19 met any of the following criteria:

The classification of the –ing form is not always so straight forward and linguists or grammarians do not always agree. Describing language is not easy; there tend to be forms that fall easily and clearly into a descriptive category and others that do not. When we teach a language, or learn it, we tend to deal with the more clear-cut cases. School grammar and course books construct examples that fit the description or grammatical category. These grammars are called teaching grammars or pedagocial grammars. But do not be deceived, these things are not always so straightforward and you are invited to think for yourself which of the examples above can be put into our classic categories of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs more easily, and with which examples the classification or description is more difficult.

The text we had in class – We learn nothing about nutrition claim medical students – was quite a challenge. The original task was to identify the verb structures of the text. Our preliminary analysis found that the verbs were mostly in the first or second form i.e. the ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’ respectively. But then I asked the class to find examples of the continuous or progressive form (BE + verb + ing) and things got more difficult.

Here some examples from that text:

Medical schools in the UK are responsible for setting their own curriculum with guidance and standards published by the General Medical Council.

A leading GP estimated that up to 80% of his patients had conditions linked to lifestyle and diet.

The GMC is now reviewing that guidance but so far it’s been very general. It told us that it recognises the significance of the impact of diet and nutrition on health and wellbeing and has sought to express this more explicitly in its revised “outcomes” that will be released this summer.

Things are also beginning to change at medical schools. University of Cambridge told us it plans to double the amount of core course content on nutrition and has asked Kate and Katherine to help.

The ball started rolling at the end of 2016 when cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra and a number of other leading doctors including Rangan Chatterjee wrote to the General Medical Council, the health secretary and the Medical Schools Council calling for all medical students and practising doctors to be trained in “evidence based lifestyle interventions”.

Task (for the last text examples only)

How many clear cases of progressive verb structures can you identify? In which examples would you say the ing participle is used as an adjective and in which examples as a noun? And with which examples is classification more difficult?

(For further references see eg More will be added.)

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