Gerund complements as Subjects

The distribution of subject gerunds closely parallels the infinitive cases and this is why we will not discuss it in any detail. The constructions are often interchangeable from a syntactic perspective, though there may be differences of meaning. (43) It was great fun to swim in the sea.

It was great fun swimming in the sea.

Since the subject position is least dependent on the verb from the interpretive point of view, it brings out the more concrete meaning of the gerund which designates propositions, facts or events in contrast with the proposition-denoting infinitive. Gerunds in subject position often refer to facts or possibilities, i.e., to definite events that have causal efficacy. Gerunds are often subjects of causative verbs, or causative psychological verbs:

(44) John’s hitting Mary made her mad.

Pulling the little girl’s hair infuriated her.

In examples like those below the gerund is the subject of event-taking predicates, thus designating an event. Remember that events are identified by their space-time properties:

(45) a. Building the Panama Canal took longer than expected.

Gathering pecans in central Texas starts in September.

Comparing the frequency of various types of complements subjects, Close (1972) notices that Poss-ing and Acc-ing complements “seem to be less frequent as subjects, at least in the spoken language”. When a full ing complement is, nevertheless, used as a subject, Poss-ing appears to be the more natural construction. Acc-ing constructions in subject position are also possible, however.

Gerund complements appear as subjects of one place adjectives or nouns: likely, necessary, odd, tragic, etc. a pleasure, an event, a good / bad thing etc. When it is lexically specified, the subject appears in the Possessive or in the Accusative case (sentences (46)). Alternatively, when it is not lexically specified, the subject is control or arbitrary PRO, or it is an unspecified variable DP, whose content is recoverable only in a context (sentences (47)). Examples of extraposed gerund subjects have also been included.

(46) Poss-ing a. “Your guessing that is a proof that you’re as clever as I say.”

Her watching by the fireside for her husband’s return from an absence might superficially have appeared as the most natural act in the world.


  1. Millie flirting with Christopher was one good thing.
  2. Look here, Billy, it’s no good you hanging around.

(47) PRO-ing with control subject

  1. Stepping into the public bar gave him a comforting sense of normality.
  2. Thinking of her made him think of her embrace.

PRO-ing with arbitrary subject

  1. Loving one’s enemies is a Christian duty.
  2. Swimming in the sea is great fun.

Gerund complements also occur as subjects of intransitive predicates that also govern prepositional Indirect Objects introduced by to, for, of, or Prepositional Objects (adjectives: hard, easy, surprising, boring, verbs: matter, occur etc.)

(48) a. Being sorry for Austin was a sort of occupation for both of them.

Meeting him was of utmost interest to me.

As already mentioned gerund complements are subjects of the large group of causative psychological verbs (surprise, alarm, bore, etc.), as well as of other transitive verbs (alter, mean, imply, entail, cause, make, give, etc.) and intransitive verbs (suffice, will do).

(49) a. Howard’s coming to live with us disturbed the routine of our household.

The front door bell’s sharply ringing pierced his ears so rudely that he could not at first think what has happened to him.

(50) a. Aiming for truth brings one up against what she calls “the opacity of persons”.

Finding you here surprised me. c. Losing his fortune made him mad.

It had already been mentioned that Extra position is not in general allowed, due to the fact that gerunds are DPs. Certain adjectives (easy, hard, useless, fun, fine, worth, awkward, ill, jolly, awful, etc.) and nouns (it is no / not any / little use / good / avail, it’s worth while, it’s an awful job etc.) allow the application of Extraposition (exemples (52)). All of them have affective, evaluative meaning; moreover, the nouns appear in frozen idiomatic constructions.

The examination of the corpus indicates that, as also noticed by Milsark (1988), only subjectless gerunds can extrapose in contemporary English (sentences (52)). To account for this distribution, we assumed that, when it extraposes, the gerund may appear in a caseless position, because the ing suffix lacks a nominal feature in this case, so that the gerund will not be headed by a DP, being an IP. In contrast, in modern, as opposed to contemporary, English, it was possible to extrapose gerunds that had subjects as well.

Examples (51)

  1. It was (of) no use my saying anything to you.
  2. It is exceedingly unwise his going off to stay at Court.

(52) a. It was delightful being with him.

It’s so awful not being able to communicate.

Extraposition should not be mixed up with Right Dislocation, a rule which moves an NP to the end of the sentence, leaving behind a pronominal copy. The moved constituent is separated from the clause by comma intonation.

(53) a. John’s big cigar bothers me.

It bother’s me, John’s cigar.

Right Dislocation may operate on gerunds:

(54) a. It’s not very important to you, seeing Dorina, is it?

It will be a sad thing, parting with her.

A frequent class of idiomatic gerund constructions is the following, based on The reinsertion, in a (usually) negative sentence:

(55) a. He had a few faithful clients, but there was no denying business was rotten.

  1. There’s no use saying any more about it.
  2. Possessive and Accusative complements as objects of prepositions the prepositional context is the most characteristic environment for gerund complements, being the only surface context which they do not share with infinitives or finite complements. Occurrence in the context of the preposition confirms that gerunds are DPs. Secondly, the prepositional context is also historically the oldest distributional context of the gerund. “the only verbal gerunds that have been found in old English texts are prepositional gerunds based on action verbs.” (Wik, 973:196). Third, the prepositional context is the least marked semantically allowing any of the current interpretations of the gerund (function of the matrix predicate and other factors). In what follows we present the more frequent predicates that govern prepositional gerunds (verbs, verbal idioms, adjectives, nouns and which are strictly subcategorized for the respective preposition. As usual, the gerunds may or may not have an overt subject. Predicates and examples are grouped according to the preposition that governs the gerund. Lists are illustrative not exhaustive.

ABOUT. Verbs: care, hesitate, hurry, see, talk, dispute, make (no) bones, trouble oneself, brag; Adjectives: careful, anxious, annoyed, particular, positive, scrupulous, glad, sorry, happy, excited, right, wrong, mistaken, pleased, uneasy, diffident, etc.

(56) a. Mary is annoyed about Jim staying out so late.

I’m worried about Mary living abroad.

AGAINST. Verbs: rule, exclaim, murmur, fight, be on one’s, guard, set one’s face, vote. Adjectives: be dead against, etc.

(57) a. They now exclaimed against punishing in cold blood.

  1. They voted against killing the prisoners.
  2. (mostly psychological, non-causative predicates). Verbs: blush, delight in / at, laugh, rejoice, revolt, stare, grieve etc. Adjectives: agitated, alarmed, angry, annoyed, astonished, (un)concerned, delighted, disgusted, embarrassed, impatient, (dis)pleased, surprised, taken about, transported, stunned.

(58) a. We were delighted at (the fact of) her inheriting a fortune and surprised at it making no difference to what she did.

Barney had been shaken and rather especially pained at twice meeting Pat at the house.

FOR. Verbs: answer, vote, care, prepare, etc. Adjectives: prepared, ready, responsible, qualified, fit.

(59) a. I’ll answer for him being there in time.

He voted for outing off Cromwell’s head without a trial.

FROM. Verbs: abstain, arise, come, emerge, result, desist, discourage, escape, refrain, shrink, forbear, etc.

(60) a. This aspect of the matter, he deliberately refrained from examining in detail.

Verbs: believe, consist, join, assist, result, fail, end, persist, succeed, etc. to take delight / refuge, to take pleasure / pride / part etc. Adjectives: absorbed, engaged, deep, justified, instrumental, occupied, successful, warranted, continuous, interested, wrong, right, sunk, exact.

(61) Doro felt he had laid it on rather thick, but was certainly right in thinking that he would be forgiven.

Verbs: admit, come (= result), complain, despair, repent, think. Adjectives: apprehensive, aware, ashamed, afraid, chary, guilty, shy, conscious, hopeful, indicative, glad, desirous, jealous, (in)capable, sure, weary, worthy, etc.

(62) a. She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of [its occasioning a visitation in her back, which she called ‘the creeps’.

  1. I thought that by your theory you disapproved of a writer’s marrying.
  2. She is afraid of Mary being late for the party.

ON Verbs: calculate venture, decide, determine, resolve, vote, theorize, depend, fix, insist, reflect, pique, pride oneself on, etc. Adjectives: bent, determined, intent, resolved, set, intent, etc.

(63) a. She’d insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, and propitious for them.

More upsetting still, Paul insisted on spending the morning with her.

TO Verbs: admit, address, take to, confine oneself, allude, pertain, amount, consent, apply, to go far / a long way to, to lay claim to, to see clear to / one’s way to, testify, revert, settle, confess, resort, object, vouch, etc. look forward to, to be given / used to, to be on the way to. Adjectives, nouns: accessory, committed, confined, essential, opposed, subject, preferable, superior, tantamount, accustomed, near, averse, enemy, friend, party.

(64) a. I wouldn’t be a party to stealing a lot of worthless trinkets.

The next day he addressed himself to deciding what to do.

WITH Verbs: put up, dispense, content, busy / occupy oneself with, etc.

Adjectives: content, pleased, satisfied etc.

(65) a. She was forced to put up with sleeping in the kitchen.

b. She busied herself with tidying up her dress.