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My girlfriend and I do not agree on the meaning of the following:

"It's disturbing"

I say that it could mean two things:

  • it is interrupting
  • it is unsettling

But she thinks it can only mean

  • It is unsettling

What do you guys think? Can it be a verb in the sentence or not?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's disturbing.

This is a complete sentence using the participial adjective disturbing, meaning (in your words) "it is unsettling".

It cannot be the verb disturb meaning "interrupt" because this sense of the verb is transitive and requires a direct object:

It's disturbing me.

Here, me is the direct object of disturbing, so it's possible for it to have the "interrupt" meaning. But without the direct object, it's not possible.

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+++ A marvelously elegant explanation. –  StoneyB Jan 18 at 0:34

You are correct to this extent: the verb disturb has a range of literal and figurative meanings:

  • You can “disturb” someone's work or routine, or any process or flow, and thus interrupt it.
  • You can “disturb” someone's mental or emotional state and thus worry or unsettle them.
  • You can “disturb” an arrangement or disposition by moving components.

Any of these senses may be expressed with disturbing, the present participle, as the head of a non-finite clause or as a component of a progressive (continuative) construction.

Telephone calls are a nuisance, disrupting my thought and disturbing my work.
What I heard about his lack of progress was disturbing me.
I wish the cleaners would stop disturbing my papers.

But your girlfriend is also correct, to this extent. In the sentence It's disturbing the word disturbing does not act as a verb or component of a verb construction. It acts merely as an adjective—linguists call this a deverbal, an ‘un-verbed’ verbform. And as an adjective, disturbing has only the sense of “mentally or emotionally unsettling”. A disturbing telephone call, for instance, is one in which unsettling facts or attitudes are communicated, not one which interrupts your routine.

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It seems to me that you are feeling unsettled because of her disturbing argument. This verb disturb is very tricky to us learners, because when we say "It is disturbing", it is disturbingly not a verb anymore; disturbing now becomes an adjective. So grammatically speaking, your girlfriend is at an advantage because interrupting cannot be used as an adjective, while both disturbing and unsettling can, as @snailplane explained. But if she said that the unsettling in "It's unsettling" is a verb, then you can say that she was wrong too. Because, in your example sentences, neither disturbing nor unsettling is a verb.

Your advantage is perhaps the face that both interrupt and unsettle are synonyms of disturb, and they are the synonyms in different senses, as @StoneyB explained. A disturbing movie could give me an unsettled feeling. However, if someone interrupted me, it would be more likely that I would feel that they were disturbing me rather than unsettling me. On the other hand, if someone keeps disturbing me, I probably will think that they are so annoying rather than unsettling. And, before I break into a conversation, I might ask "Am I interrupting (something/anything)?" first, because I know that I might disturb them by interrupting their conversation.

One last note, as I have often been reminded, each word exists for good reason. Even synonyms cannot always replace each other. And, context is the king.

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