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Category : Mechanics

Gerunds

Gerunds are nominal forms of verbs (i.e. forms of verbs that act as nouns) that end in “ing”. They are used to indicate action or state of being.

Gerunds often appear as subjects:

  • Flying is frightening.
  • Walking quickly to the store was out of the question, so we drove.
  • Spending time with friends is as important as studying.

Note, in the first example, that “flying” is a gerund, while “frightening” is an adjective. In the second example, note that gerunds may be modified by adverbs.

Gerunds may also appear as direct objects:

  • Gerald likes driving.
  • Susan faked sleeping when her mother entered the room.
  • John enjoys running marathons.

In each of these cases, the gerund is the direct object of the verb that precedes it.

Gerunds may be the objects of prepositions:

  • From sailing, to waterskiing, to wakeboarding, to tubing, John tried and loved all water sports.
  • Carol thanked Stan for stepping in when she couldn’t make it to the meeting.
  • After months of negotiating, the parties reached an agreement.

They may be subject complements, too:

  • The fire is burning brightly.
  • The clock is running slow.

Note that in each case, “ing” implies the continuity or progression of action (“running”, “burning”).

“If” Clauses

There are three types of “if” clauses – or “conditionals”. Conditionals present conditions under which certain things are possible, to varying degrees.

One class of “if” clauses sets up conditions that are relatively likely to be realized:

  • If James takes a nap, he’ll have the energy he needs to run a mile. (where “he’ll” = “he will”)
  • If Karen studies the material, she may pass the test.
  • If Dr. Knight listens to the opinions of his colleagues, he will be better informed about the debate over the change in policy.

The active voice (“takes”, “studies”, “listens”) provides an immediacy that suggests that in the real world, there is a real chance that each of the people above will do each of the things mentioned.

The second class of “if” clauses sets up conditions that are less likely to be realized. The situations presented are more hypothetical “what ifs”:

  • If James took a nap, he’d have the energy he needs to run a mile. (where “he’d” = “he would”)
  • If Karen studied the material, she might pass the test.
  • If Dr. Knight listened to the opinions of his colleagues, he would be better informed about the debate over the change in policy.

There’s no easy, rule-based or grammatical way to explain the difference between the two sets of sentences, but it helps to note that the second set presents possibilities in a way that is more speculative. The element of passivity (“took”, “studied”, “listened”) in the second set affords less immediacy that the element of activity (“takes”, “studies”, “listens”) in the first set and so makes the possibility of the events specified actually occurring seem less remote.

Note that there’s another way of expressing the same conditions:

  • If James were to take a nap, he’d have the energy he needs to run a mile.
  • If Karen were to study the material, she might pass the test.
  • If Dr. Knight were to listen to the opinions of his colleagues, he would be better informed about the debate over the change in policy.

This is the subjunctive form, and it might seem counterintuitive at times. It is appropriate, for example, to say, “if I were to” but not “if I was to”, even though “I” is typically paired with “was” when “I” is the subject and the verb “to be” follows in the past tense (e.g. “I was thinking …”). They key here is to remember the construction, “If [someone] were to [do something]… [that someone] might/would/could [be/do something else].”

The last set of “if” clauses presents conditions that are presently impossible to fulfill but if fulfilled in the past would have led to particular results:

  • If James had taken a tap, he would have had the energy he needed to run a mile.
  • If Karen had studied the material, she might have passed the test.
  • If Dr. Knight had listened to the opinions of his colleagues, he would have been better informed about the debate over the change in policy.

Note the use of the past perfect tense (“had taken”, “had studied”, “had listened” and “would have had”, “would have passed”, “would have been”). In these scenarios, the opportunities presented (to take a nap, to study the material, to listen to the opinions of colleagues) have passed, but had the people specified done the things noted, the outcomes listed would have occurred.

“That” vs. “Which”

“That” is a restrictive, or defining, pronoun, meaning (basically) that it is used in definitional contexts:

  • This is the hat that I wore to the wedding.

Here, “that I wore to the wedding” is a restrictive clause introduced by the restrictive pronoun “that”. The restrictive clause defines the hat as the one worn to the wedding.

(On a side note, you might also see: “This is the hat I wore to the wedding.”)

Whether “which” may also be used as a restrictive, or defining, pronoun is debatable. The previous example could be written as:

  • This is the hat which I wore to the wedding.

However, this construction is used mostly in informal speech. Speakers of formal American English tend to consider “which” a non-restrictive, or non-defining, pronoun to be used in non-restrictive clauses that are set off by commas (in writing) or pauses in speech, as in:

  • This hat, which I wore the wedding, will never be worn again.

The confusion, for some, arises in cases such as the following:

  • The car, which is faster than all the others, will win the race.
  • The car which is faster than all the others will win the race.

In the first example, a specific car is mentioned. It is implied that this car is faster than all the others and is predicted to win the race. In the second example, a general rule is stated – that the fastest car (not this car, but whichever car is fastest) will win the race. The meanings of the sentences are different. Generally, formal American English requires that the second example be written as:

  • The car that is faster than all the others will win the race.

One way to think about the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses – and when to use “which” vs. “that” – is to remove the clause in question from the sentence and see whether the meaning of the sentence changes:

  • 1) The car, which is faster than all the others, will win the race BECOMES 2) The car will win the race.

The meaning doesn’t really change, as we began (1) by stating that “the car” (this car), will win the race – and added, with the sub-clause “which is faster than all the others” that the car happened to be faster than other cars. The fact that the car was faster was not essential to the sentence, whose purpose was to note that the car would win. (In this sense, noting that the car was faster was kind of a “by the way …”)

  • 1) The car that/which is faster than all the others will win the race BECOMES 2) The car will win the race.

In this case, we began (1) by stating a rule: The fastest car will win the race. The clause “that/which is faster than all the others” was essential to the definition of this rule. By removing it, we changed the meaning of the sentence. (2) does not state that the fastest car will win. It says that a specific car (this car) will win.

Generally speaking, the rule is that when a removing a clause from a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, that clause should off-set by “that”, not “which”. When the meaning of a sentence is unaltered by the removal of a clause, the clause should be off-set by “which”.