What It Means to Verbalize: The Changing Discourse Functions of the English Gerundby L. Fonteyn, H. De Smet, L. Heyvaert

Journal of English Linguistics


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Journal of English Linguistics 1 –25 © 2015 SAGE Publications

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DOI: 10.1177/0075424214564365 eng.sagepub.com

Original Manuscript

What It Means to Verbalize:

The Changing Discourse

Functions of the English


Lauren Fonteyn1,2, Hendrik De Smet1, and Liesbet Heyvaert1


The English gerund system consists of two types of gerunds: a nominal gerund (the learning of a language), and a verbal gerund that developed out of the nominal gerund (learning a language). While the formal aspects of this diachronic verbalization of the gerund are well documented, much remains to be said about the discoursefunctional side of the change. In this paper, it is argued that the formal verbalization of the gerund is accompanied by an important change in the discourse-functional organization of the gerund system. Based on functional characterizations of noun phrase (NP) behavior in the literature, the prototypical behavior of complex NPs is operationalized as (i) functioning as manipulable discourse participants that are important enough in the following discourse to be susceptible to anaphoric targeting and (ii) being inaccessible to anaphoric targeting of internal participants. The results of an analysis of a set of nominal gerunds, verbal gerunds and ‘regular’ complex

NPs covering the period 1640–1914 (taken from the Penn Parsed Corpora of

Early Modern and Modern British English) shows that the increasingly clause-like appearance of the verbal gerund is in fact accompanied by atypical NP behavior.

Moreover, the paper makes clear that the changes in the discourse-functional organization of the gerund system did not only affect the verbal gerund, but also had some implications for the nominal gerund. These findings shed new light on the (diachronic) processes of verbalization and nominalization, and on what they mean on a discourse-functional level. 1University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium 2Fund for Scientific Research - Flanders (FWO), Belgium

Corresponding Author:

Lauren Fonteyn, University of Leuven, Blijde-Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Leuven, 3000, Belgium

Email: lauren.fonteyn@kuleuven-kulak.be 564365 ENGXXX10.1177/0075424214564365Journal of English LinguisticsFonteyn et al. research-article2015 2 Journal of English Linguistics

Keywords historical linguistics, gerund, nominal gerund, verbal gerund, nominalization, verbalization,

Early Modern English, Late Modern English, functional linguistics, history of English


This paper discusses the development of nominal and verbal gerunds from Early

Modern to Late Modern English with a focus on their discourse-functional behavior.

The English gerund is a deverbal structure ending in -ing, which can take two different forms: nominal gerunds, as in (1), have the internal syntax of a noun phrase (NP), whereas verbal gerunds, as in (2), have the internal syntax of a clause. (1) There is, first, the dryness inseparable from the learning of a language (…). (Bain, 1878, Penn Parsed Corpus of Modern British English [PPCMBE]1) (2) I feel so relieved at having found a master. (Thring, 187X, PPCMBE)

At the same time, the nominal gerund in (1) and the verbal gerund in (2) can synchronically be defined as nominalizations, i.e., they serve to make a verbal form function as a noun phrase (or NP) in a clause and involve both decategorization and recategorization (Hopper & Thompson 1984; Bhat 1994; Malchukov 2006). Both nominal and verbal gerunds show signs of external reclassification in that they adopt—be it to a varying extent—the distribution of an NP (i.e., the grammatical function that an NP serves in a clause, e.g., subject, object, prepositional object, etc.). They are also subject to internal reclassification (McGregor 1997; Heyvaert 2003) or formal decategorization (Hopper & Thompson 1984), which manifests itself, for instance, in the absence of overtly realized morphosyntactic properties such as inflection for person or tense and in the integration of internal formal noun-like features and referential behavior in the discourse (Langacker 1991; Heyvaert 2003).

While synchronically, the verbal gerund, like the nominal gerund, is considered a nominalization, it is in fact the result of an instance of diachronic verbalization of the nominal gerund, which existed long before its verbal counterpart (Tabor & Traugott 1998; Malchukov 2004:119-121).2 Verbalization (and nominalization for that matter) in this diachronic sense is to be understood as a historical process in which a form gradually acquires verb-like (or, with nominalization, noun-like) characteristics, often combined with the loss of features of its original category (Malchukov 2004:119). The diachronic verbalization of the gerund has thus far mainly been defined in morphosyntactic terms, as earlier studies focused on the lengthy process involving the reconfiguration of the NP structure of the nominal gerund into that of a nonfinite clause (Jespersen 1940; Mustanoja 1960; Visser 1963–1973; Emonds 1973; Tajima 1985, 1996, 1999; Donner 1986; Jack 1988; Houston 1989; Van der Wurff 1993; Fanego 1996a, 1996b, 1998, 2004; Miller 2002; Kranich 2006). In that process, the gerund gradually acquired verbal properties, such as the ability to:

Fonteyn et al. 3 a. Govern an object or a predicative complement (e.g., She always hated his teasing the girls / my being an atheist); b. Be modified by adverbs or adverbials which only co-occur with verbs (e.g., by gently stroking the cat); c. Show tense and voice distinctions (e.g., the harm in having eaten the plastic wrapper / dreams of being chased); d. Be negated by means of the VP-negating particle not (e.g., my father’s not caring); and e. Take a subject in a case other than the genitive (e.g., I don’t like him being around mom).

According to the literature, the acquisition of these verbal features appears to have unfolded roughly as follows. The verbalization of the gerund started during the Late