Not too long ago, I came upon this sign taped to the door of a medical office: Covid-19 Test: Going Through This Door. It’s fair to say, I think, that we all know what the notice meant: that one should use that door to get to the Covid testing site. From a grammatical point of view, though, the mishap offers an opportunity to review some basics about English grammar, and to remind us as well that much can depend on a few simple letters.
First, the sign was meant as a direct command. The writer of the notice intended to determine the action of certain readers, those looking for a Covid-19 test, but in doing so he or she chose the word going instead of go to express that command. Ordering other people about is, indeed, one of the things we can do with language. We can also state a fact or express an emotional reality, and all three of these uses of language—fact, command, and wish—make up what is called the mood of a verb.
English verbs have three moods that correspond to these three uses: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. We form the indicative by including the subject along with the verb: This door leads to the Covid-19 testing site. Such a construction is stating a fact; it intends to convey information, not direct the action of someone else. The imperative mood, by contrast, is intent on telling others what to do, and to indicate that intention, we drop the subject pronoun and use the verb alone: Go though this door. The subjunctive mood, finally, is interested not in public facts but private mental realities, and although it would be rare to see it on a sign, we could say, I hope you might go through this door to get your Covid-19 test. Strange but true.
But if the sign at the medical office should have said go instead of going to express the imperative mood, what is the grammar of going? Words that end in –ing are either participles or gerunds. A participle is an adjective built from a verb. Something that goes is a going something, just as someone who talks is talking, a talking person. Because they are formed from verbs, participles point to the active characteristics that something exhibits. I might be wearing a white shirt, and the adjective white names the quality of whiteness that describes the shirt. But if I had the temerity to go out in public in a torn shirt, the quality of being torn—the fact that the shirt can be described as torn—is only apparent because something happened to it. Participles name qualities that are present in things only by virtue of an action taken upon them.
The other kind of word that ends in –ing, the gerund, is not an adjective but a noun built from a verb. The world, as it happens, is an odd place, and when we come to think about it, some things exist only when they’re moving. I might tell you that I love running, but the second my legs stop moving at a certain speed in a certain way, running has disappeared into nothingness—unlike the pencil on my table in this room. Gerunds give us a way to express the difference between static and dynamic realities, both of which go into making the world what it is to us as seen through language.
So when that sign on the door read Covid-19 Test: Going Through This Door, it either meant that the test was going through this door (in which case going would be a participle), or that the act of going through this door would take you to the test (in which case going would be a gerund). But we’d have to work hard to make either of those explanations plausible, because the first doesn’t make any logical sense and the second is only a fragment of the idea. Better to conclude that I stumbled upon what is called a solecism, a grammatical mistake, and realize how difficult and subtle language can be.