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Grammatically Speaking, March 2009

Dear Richard,

I teach high-intermediate and advanced students, and we've been dealing with lots of examples of verbs ending in –ing. I'm feeling somewhat insecure in this area of grammar because I’m not sure when I'm dealing with a present participle or when I'm dealing with a gerund. It can get quite confusing.

We had the following sentence about a now notorious Wall Street tycoon, and I couldn't decide what the –ing verb was, a present participle or a gerund.

He was famous for consistently picking stocks that gave high returns.

I hope you can tell me what that –ing verb is and explain your answer. Thanks in advance.

Eleanor Bradbury

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Dear Eleanor,

This is a question that's asked by many an ESOL teacher. What gives this away as a present participle and not a gerund is the word consistently. A gerund is like the noun form of a verb, so if it's preceded by nothing at all or by an adjective, we can see that it's a gerund, working as a noun. For example, if we tweak the sentence and have He was famous for picking stocks that gave high returns, we have a gerund. Or if we tweak the sentence like this, His consistent picking of stocks that gave high returns made him famous, we have a gerund since we're now using a possessive adjective plus the adjective consistent. In addition, picking doesn’t have a direct object—which a verb will have—so once again we can see that we’re dealing with a gerund.

Your original sentence, however, contains the adverb consistently. We know that an adverb modifies a verb, not a noun, so picking must be a present participle in this instance. We also see that picking has a direct object, stocks, so that's another way we know that in this case, picking is a present participle. So, to sum up, Eleanor, if you find a direct object after the –ing verb or an adverb modifying the –ing verb, it must be a present participle. If, on the other hand, you find an adjective modifying the –ing verb, or if there’s no direct object, you’re most likely dealing with a gerund.

We often find that an –ing form can have qualities like a noun and like a verb, and that's why many grammarians have decided to call this form an –ing verb and just leave it at that. I think that's a great idea. As for the sentence you presented here, what students really have to know is that when a verb follows a preposition, it needs to have the –ing attached to it, plain and simple. It's not so much a matter of whether we’re dealing with a gerund or a present participle, but it is a matter of knowing that we need to make it an –ing verb if it’s the object of a preposition.

Thank you, Eleanor, for sending in a very important question that I'm sure many teachers have wondered about.


Dear Richard,

I've been scratching my head over this. Why is it that people say a whole nother instead of another whole? Is that considered good English?

Curtis Brewer

Los Angeles, California USA

Dear Curtis,

You can stop scratching your head now. Why people use that altered form of another whole is probably because it either sounds cute or humorous. And what's really interesting is that you can now find nother in some dictionaries! I would make it clear to your students, though, that the form is very informal and should only be used in very informal situations.

Thanks for a question about an item we often hear but don't think too much about.


Dear Mr. Firsten:

One of my adult ed. students raised a question that stumped me. (How I dislike when that happens!) He had gone into his boss's office. His boss was busy writing something at her desk, so he just stood at the doorway, not wanting to interrupt. His boss looked up and said to him, "Was there something you needed to see me about?" My student was confused. He couldn't understand why she had asked that question in the past tense. When he asked me if the question was right and I said it was, he did exactly what I was hoping he wouldn't do—he asked me why it was right.

In the few grammar resource books I have, I can't find anything that explains why that question was right in the past tense even though it was about that present moment. Can you help me out here?


Norman, Oklahoma USA

Dear No-Sense-in-the-Tense:

This is one of the more curious phenomena of English. It's a form of what we call "backshifting." In this particular usage, we use the past tense as a way of softening a question or statement, making it less aggressive sounding and therefore more polite. Your student's boss could just as easily have asked Is there something you need to see me about? but that could have come across as quite aggressive or even confrontational. It’s not ungrammatical by any means; it’s just stronger sounding.

Some people consider the use of backshifting more distant or even unfriendly. It can convey the idea that speakers who use this linguistic trick know they should ask whatever it is, but they really hope the answer will be "No" and that they'll be left in peace. Interesting how one little grammatical change like this can create whole scenarios!

Other things your student's boss could have said, again using backshifting, are Was there something you wanted? or Did you need to see me about something? Putting such questions in the present might sound just too rude or aggressive (Is there something you want? Do you need to see me about something?). In all of these examples, the speaker is trying to be polite and possibly communicating a reluctance to deal with the other person.

We use this form of backshifting a great deal in everyday conversation and in writing as well. It's so common, in fact, that most of us never even stop to wonder about why we're saying whatever we're saying in the past when we're really talking about the present. Here are some other typical examples of using backshifting to soften what we're saying for one reason or another. First I'll give you the more aggressive or stronger version, then the softened one:

  • If you're always short on cash, get a part-time job.

      If you're always short on cash, you might want to get a part-time job.

  • I'm going to the movies this evening. Uh, do you want to go, too?

      I'm going to the movies this evening. Uh, did you want to go, too?

  • Hi, Liz. I'm calling because I just want to let you know I'll be a little late.

      Hi, Liz. I'm calling because I just wanted to let you know I'll be a little late.

  • Sorry, I didn't get your name. What is it again?

      Sorry, I didn't get your name. What was it again?

I hope what I've offered here helps explain this odd but interesting use of backshifting. Thanks for such a great question!


Dear Richard,

Please clarify a point for my fellow teachers and me. Are non-finite clauses the same thing as what we used to call "phrases"? If they're different, please explain how they differ.

Thank you for answering our question.

Madhur Pawar

Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Dear Madhur,

Yes, non-finite clauses are the same thing as "phrases." In addition, finite clauses are the same thing as "clauses." The terminology underwent a change some years ago, and now most grammarians use the terms finite and non-finite clauses.

It’s not difficult to figure out which is which. A finite clause must have a subject and a verb that carries tense. So, for example, I'm reading "Grammatically Speaking" . . . is a finite clause, and so is . . . which appears online, even though this is a subordinate clause to boot. Come with me to the next TESOL convention is also a finite clause even though the subject you is hidden and the verb is in the imperative form.

A non-finite clause doesn't have to have a subject, and its verb doesn't carry tense. Here in bold are examples of non-finite clauses:

  • Frightened by the stock market crisis, many investors have sold their shares.
  • Her goal is to retire by age 62.
  • He bought many stocks that had lost their value, expecting them to rebound.

There you go, Madhur. I hope this has clarified these terms for you and your colleagues. Thanks for sending in that question.

Here's the Brain Teaser from my December 2008 column: What's the difference between these two sentences?

Secretary to boss: Mr. Hanks? Mr. DeMille is on line 2.
Secretary to boss: Mr. Hanks? A Mr. DeMille is on line 2.

The first correct response was sent in by Antwan Carmichael of Queens, New York.

In the first version, we can assume that both the secretary and Mr. Hanks know Mr. DeMille. In the second version, we know that the secretary doesn't know who Mr. DeMille is, but we can't be sure if Mr. Hanks knows him or not.

That's absolutely correct, Antwan! It's fascinating how the addition of that one little indefinite article can transform what we know about those people in that kind of situation.

And now for a new Brain Teaser. Take a look at the following sentences:

She won more gold medals at the Olympics than expected.

Most mentally ill people don't realize that they are.

Some people go to sports events; others to the theater.

Can you figure out what linguistic phenomenon those three sentences have in common? Name the phenomenon, and give details to explain your answer.

Please e-mail your responses to

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