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What Is a Present Participle?

The "-ing" Forms: Present Participles and Gerunds


In one respect, the present participle is a simple, straightforward construction. Whether laughing or crying, rising or falling, it's formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb. No exceptions.

But after that, it gets a bit more complicated.

For one thing, the label is misleading. It's true that the present participle (in this example, rising) sometimes appears to indicate present time:

She looks at the rising sun.
But when the tense of the main verb changes to the simple past, the time of the "present" participle seems to change right along with it:
She looked at the rising sun.
And when the main verb points to the future, the "present" participle again tags along:
She will look at the rising sun.
The truth is, the present participle really doesn't mark time at all. That job is reserved for the main verb and its auxiliaries. And for this reason, many linguists prefer to use the term -ing form rather than present participle.

You may have noticed another peculiarity of the present participle (or -ing form): it has multiple personalities. Though based on a verb, the present participle often works like an adjective. In our examples so far, the present participle rising modifies the noun sun.

But that's not always the case.

Consider how the -ing words are used in this quotation, variously attributed to Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vince Lombardi, and American Idol veteran Clay Aiken:

Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.
Both falling and rising function here as nouns--specifically, as objects of the preposition in. When a verb plus -ing does the job of a noun, it reveals its secret identity as a gerund.

Then again, when an -ing word is combined with a form of the auxiliary verb to be, it functions as a verb:

The price of oil is rising.
This construction is called the present progressive.

But for the present, that's enough about the -ing form. If you're interested in learning more about this role-changing verbal, please visit these pages:

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  6. What Is a Present Participle? - The "-ing" Forms: Present Participles and Gerunds

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