A Mistaken Identity

H. H. Munro’s short story “The Schartz-Metterklume Method” has an interesting sentence worth examining for its grammar. A young woman is standing on a platform, waiting for her train to depart, when she is approached by someone who quickly takes her for the new governess she is there to meet. The young woman decides such a game of mistaken identity might be worth the fun of it, and so the tale unfolds. Munro, who also wrote under the pen name Saki, was an acclaimed British writer of the late nineteenth-century, known for his intelligently disdainful and witty style.

The mistaken governess, of course, soon makes a mess of things, and the mother, unexpectedly hearing the commotion of her children outside, confronts her daughter: “’What are you children doing out here?’ demanded Mrs. Quabarl the next morning, on finding Irene sitting rather glumly at the head of the stairs….” With this discovery, the story reaches the beginning of its end, but, interestingly, the sentence itself happens to include two grammatical constructions that are often confused. Words that end with the suffix –ing can be either present participles or gerunds, two distinctly different linguistic devices we should understand in order not to be, as Munro says of the Quabarl family, “woefully befooled.”

There are, in fact, four words in Munro’s sentence which have the suffix –ing; two of them, doing and sitting, function as present participles, one, finding, acts as a gerund, and one, morning, is a pure noun. This last instance we can safely ignore, because participles and gerunds are verbal constructions; nouns (and adjectives), on the other hand, are part of what are called nominal constructions, and do not figure directly into the differences we are trying to distinguish here (although just why the noun morning does end with the –ing suffix has a curious etymological answer worth pursuing in the dictionary). Let’s focus our investigation, then, on just the two words finding and sitting, and try to decide which is which, present participle or gerund.

A participle is an adjective built from a verb. It names, as all adjectives do, a quality that defines or describes a noun, but because participles have verbs in their linguistic lineage, they usually name qualities that arise from some action their noun is, or has been, engaged in. So when Munro writes that Irene was sitting rather glumly, he is describing the child by naming something she was doing. That act of sitting has attached itself to the child just as much as any other adjectival quality might (small, for example, or intelligent), but by virtue of being a participle, the word sitting has fused together both action and description, verb and adjective. And that is just what a participle is meant to do.

The gerund, on the other hand, is a noun built from a verb. With this device, a writer can point to an action and regard it as something in its own right—some thing, which means it must be a noun. Human experience is such that the things we encounter are not only static (like this computer or the light fixture above it), but also dynamic, like the action of finding someone. Static nouns stay put in a way dynamic nouns, gerunds, do not; the computer I’m writing on isn’t doing anything and will be right where it is if I get up for more coffee. But when Mrs. Quabarl found Irene, the act of finding ended and the gerund disappeared into thin air. The fact that actions can constitute things is the reason why gerunds exist.

If these distinctions between participles and gerunds are difficult to see (and it does take a little thinking about it—another gerund!), we can see the difference another way. The phrase on finding Irene begins with the preposition on, and we know that every preposition must have an object it is working with. If I say I have money in my pocket, the noun pocket is the object of the preposition in, and those two words form the beginning and end points of what is called a prepositional phrase. Likewise, the preposition on in the phrase on finding Irene must have an object, and that can be supplied by the gerund finding, because gerunds are nouns constructed from verbs (with the proper noun Irene standing, in turn, as the object of the gerund). The presence of the preposition proves, then, that finding is a gerund here, not a participle.

There are, then, real distinctions to be made between present participle and gerund, just as there should have been made between persons by the unfortunate Mrs. Quabarl. The knowing young governess, on the other hand, said the entire confusion was “not at all tiresome.” Let’s hope the same for our many encounters with the bafflements of grammar.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion