Riding the Rapids

If you stay looking at language long enough, you can turn yourself into a philosopher of sorts. And that’s a good thing, because at its best, philosophy tries to get behind how something just appears. It wants to find out what’s really going on, to unconfuse us by helping us be sure that what we think is the case is in fact really true. Believe the distorted image in that wacky carnival mirror, and things will go akilter.

We can see philosophy at work in the many distinctions that grammar makes about how words are used in a sentence. Some of these distinctions are subtle, and too often we too quickly shun the study of language because we can’t immediately see the relevance. Language, though, is the mirror in which we see the world reflected, and the better we understand how language works, the better we can test how much what we would like to believe—and what others would like us to believe—can be relied upon. Things that look the same aren’t always the same thing.

Take, for example, this sentence that someone might very well say after a great vacation in Colorado: Riding those raging rapids was thrilling. Six words, and three of them end with the suffix –ing. One of the nettling distinctions that grammar makes is between what is called a present participle and a gerund, two concepts that are beyond none of us, but which do ask us to look a little more closely at the world we’re in. A participle is an adjective built from a verb. Adjectives name characteristics of things; they describe nouns by pointing out specific features, some of which don’t imply any action or movement (a long river), and some that do (raging rapids). So if I want to describe a quality that has movement to it, I can reach to a participle, because participles are close to verbs, and verbs express action. To speak of raging rapids, then, means that the rapids were raging, and raging is a present participle made from the verb rage. Present participles always end in –ing.

Now if we think too quickly and conclude that every word ending in ing is therefore a present participle, we will have only distinguished ourselves as yet unfledged philosophers. For we can’t really say, can we, that the first word in our example, riding, is describing anything at all, even though it too ends in –ing. Riding those rapids is an action in itself; the word is naming an action, not describing a noun, and that means that riding can’t be a participle, even though it appears to be one. Riding, in fact, is something called a gerund, which is a noun built from a verb. Gerunds are nouns and participles are adjectives, both with verbs in their genes and both ending –ing.

So riding those raging rapids means the act of riding those rapids which were raging. That, though, can be said much more neatly (always an aspiration of good philosophy), and so language has invented participles and gerunds as devices to make statements more succinct. But what, finally, about thrilling? We can use the analysis of that word as a little test for ourselves. Is the word thrilling describing something or naming an action in its own right? What was thrilling was riding those raging rapids, and that can only mean that thrilling is a participle, a verbal adjective, describing the gerund riding. The rapids were not thrilling, but riding them was.

And for 10 bonus points, is the word describing in my sentence above a participle or a gerund? A philosopher of language would know.


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