Which wording with kill should be used here:

He committed a crime (killing/by killing) a bird.

My guess is the answer would be by killing. But I am really confused with the answer killing.

My questions relating to this sentence are:

  1. Which one is correct and why? (or are they both correct?)

  2. If one of them is incorrect, why is it incorrect? (or, if both of them are, why?)

  3. If they are both correct, what is the difference in meaning?

  4. If they are both correct, what is the difference in their grammar?

  • 4
    @IqbalHossain Hello and welcome. Sorry to sound negative before even communicating with you. Here's some background: on Stack Exchange, there is an expectation that when someone asks a question, they first try to find the answer on their own (that's loosely called research). If that doesn't answer the question, the research should be posted along with the question (e.g. two sites give conflicting advice - summarise the advice and link to both sites). This helps the community to zoom in on the bit that's still unclear. (See also: FAQ.)
    – Lawrence
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 17:11
  • It's a pity that by editing this question some information got lost, which is (IMHO) crucial to determine the source of the OP's confusion. I restored it to the original version.
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:46
  • Seems to me that He committed a crime killing a bird is merely an ellipsis of by or in, and that no more elaboration is required (as entertaining as the answers are, and as tempting as I'm sure the bounty is). Short answer: both are correct, there is no difference in meaning, and the difference in grammar is the aforementioned ellipsis. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 21:25
  • @P.E.Dant It sounds like you've got a competing answer that needs posting (and separate voting+commentary). At the least, it contradicts mine, which says that each sentence is ordinarily capable of expressing two meanings, overlapping on one, for a total of three; and that the grammar works differently in each case: without by, killing is heard as a participle, modifying He; with by, as a gerund, so by killing… modifies _committed_—which explains the difference in possible meanings. If you can make a convincing case that no, really it's just elision, I'll +1 your answer. :)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 21:58
  • @BenKovitz Mine would be so brief as to seem trivial. I can't see killing as any but the gerund. Because of your answer, I would have to argue against your participle interpretation, which seems so far-fetched to me that I don't know where to begin. Try as I might, I hear Thus the defendant committed a crime by killing a bird. Just a common or garden variety ellipsis. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 22:10

4 Answers 4


He committed a crime killing a bird. [CORRECT]

The part - killing a bird - is a Gerund-Participle Clause, formed by the ing-form of the verb - kill - together with the complement of kill - a bird.

The meaning of this sentence is ambiguous -

  • While killing a bird, he made a crime. Both "committing a crime" and "killing" happened simultaneously.

  • He committed a crime, because he killed the bird.

  • He committed a crime, and as a result a bird was killed.

So if you want to explicitly tell that "you committed a crime because you killed a bird", it's preferred to use the following sentence -

He committed a crime by killing a bird. [CORRECT]

Here by killing a bird is a Preposition Phrase and the complement of the preposition - by - is a Gerund-Participle clause - killing a bird.

The function of both killing a bird and by killing a bird in the sentence is an Adjunct.


  1. From Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Biber et al. Page No. 782 Overlap and ambiguity

Although many circumstance adverbials clearly fir only one of the seven major semantic categories, not all occurrences of circumstance adverbials are so clear cut.

first, there are many cases in which adverbials fit primarily into one category, but have secondary roles that fit another category. manner adverbials in particular often include aspects of another semantic category; for example, slowly and quickly in examples below are not only descriptions of the manner of an action, but can also be interpreted as describing duration:

I've started but it's going rather slowly. (CONV)
They evidently expected him to go quickly. (FICT)

Other manner adverbials can include a meaning of extent/degree:

They ahve no desire to investigate this matter properly. (NEWS)
The disease pattern has changed radically. (ACAD)

In addition, certain adverbials have extremely ambiguous meaning. The ambiguity in the use of just as restrictive and extent/degree was noted above. Ing-clauses often present an even greater problem for interpretation. These clauses typically have an implicit and somewhat ill-defined relationship with the main clause. Consider the following:

  1. Watching him as the days went by, the guilty collector had noticed signs of physical and moral decline. (FICT)
  2. Three weeks ago Swedish and Scottish police searched Talb's flat in Uppsala, removing fifteen bags of clothing. (NEWS)
  3. The result of the operation is placed in the accumulator, destroying its previous contents. (ACAD)

In 1, the adverbial clause could be interpreted as showing a concurrent time relationship (i.e. while watching him, the collector noticed the decline) or as giving a reason (i.e. because he watched him, the collector noticed the decline). In 2 and 3, the adverbial clause could be interpreted as describing a result, a concurrent time relationship, or an event that happened in a time sequence. The distribution and uses of this semantically ambiguous form, termed supplementive clause, is discussed further in and

Circumstance adverbials can also serve functions similar to linking adverbials. Much of the information in circumstance adverbials creates cohesion with information that has come before. for example, the time adverbials then and meanwhile show the connection between the events in the previous clause and the subsequent clause:

He planked the bottle on the table, and shambled muttering round the corner. Then he put his head back into sight. (FICT)
The 21 sambas originally submitted were whittled to one. Meanwhile, seamstresses and tailors all over Rio made costumes. (NEWS)

With adverbials such as these, the connective function is made semantically, through the circumstantial information which indicates time relationships. Thus, they are still categorized as circumstance adverbials.

The circumstance categories of addition and contingency also occasionally exhibit similarities with linking adverbials (see for discussion of the former, and 10.4.1 for linking adverbials in general).

  1. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Biber et al. page no. 362 sec. 11.6 Semantic categories of circumstance adverbials

  2. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (ASIEG) by Huddleston & Pullum page no. 213 Sec. 3.3 Gerund-Participles

NOTE: There is some difference between the grammatical framework used in Biber et al. and ASIEG. So the terminology differs. The Adverbial referred to in Biber et al. must be an Adjunct in ASIEG. I, however, followed in this answer the framework ASIEG followed.

  • 1
    +1 from me for the different meanings (and everything else) Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 17:50
  • @SteveES well, in modern treatment it's not Gerund because of some drawbacks in traditional Gerund analysis. And it's a clause because it has an implied subject, a verb and an object. It's not a phrase, at least that's what contemporary grammarians claim. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 13:27
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    @Man_From_India After doing some more research, I now agree with you +1. Not sure why it turned out to be so difficult to find in the first place...
    – SteveES
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 14:27

Both are correct, and the difference in meaning is subtle but important. Each has more than one reasonable grammatical interpretation. I'll illustrate each interpretation with a made-up anecdote along with an explanation.

He committed a crime killing a bird

(1) In the process of killing a bird, he committed a crime. Killing a bird was not the crime.

The defendant had been annoyed for several consecutive days by loud cawing. On Wednesday, he spotted a crow and gave chase on a snowmobile, rifle in hand. The crow flew down the street and into the McGarnicles' backyard—bounded by an 8' high wooden fence clearly marked with a NO TRESPASSING sign. The defendant crashed through the fence, entering the McGarnicles' backyard, destroying their prize begonias and tipping over and shattering their prized solid marble Buddha sculpture. The crow lit on a railing in front of a window on the McGarnicles' house, giving the defendant a clean shot. The defendant fired, killing the crow and incidentally breaking the McGarnicles' window. This puts the defendant in violation of Ohio Revised Code §2911.21, Criminal Trespass, and §2923.161(1), Improperly Discharging a Firearm At or Into a Habitation. Thus the defendant committed a crime killing a bird—two crimes, actually, one fourth-degree misdemeanor and one second-degree felony.

Note to Araucaria Man: Check out those official sources!

Grammatically, killing in this interpretation is a present participle modifying He. It asserts that the commission of the crime and the killing of the bird happened simultaneously and in connection with each other.

(2) The sentence asserts that killing the bird was a crime. In speech, you would say it like this: "He committed a crime killing a bird!" Usually you'd precede "bird" with "the" or "that", but "a" can work, especially if the speaker wants to claim that killing any bird is (morally) a crime.

Never mind the broken window and the statue and the Ohio Revised Code and all that. That crow had looked after the neighborhood for years, cawing whenever anyone was in danger. On at least nine occasions, that bird's cawing alerted adults to save a child who'd wandered into the street. One of those children was Slotegraaf's own four-year-old daughter! Slotegraaf committed a crime killing that bird, I tell you—a crime!

Grammatically, killing in this interpretation is still a present participle, modifying He. It asserts a different kind of connection between the crime and the killing, namely that the killing was a crime. Unlike the previous interpretation, you could reword this one "His killing of a bird was a crime." One could argue that "killing a bird" in this interpretation should be called a "predicative complement" or something like that, and I wouldn't fight about it. The main thing is to understand what is asserted about what.

There is something else important to understand about the grammar of the sentence: the words alone do not provide all the information needed to determine the grammatical relationships. Crucial information is in the context, especially regarding what the listener is assumed to already know or agree with. If the context indicates what the crime was, and that crime was not the killing of a bird, as in (1), then the sentence asserts that "killing a bird" was somehow causally intertwined with or at least simultaneous with the crime. In (2), the listener is expected to know already that "he" killed a bird, and not expected to already know or agree that killing the bird was a crime. The sentence informs the listener of that fact or the speaker expresses it as an opinion.

He committed a crime by killing a bird

(3) Killing a bird was how he committed a crime. Killing the bird wasn't the crime (exactly), it was the means by which the crime was accomplished.

After his indictment, Slotegraaf skipped bail and fled to Thailand. Someone had told Slotegraaf that prisons in Thailand were comparable to country clubs in the United States—probably as a joke, but Slotegraaf thought it was true. Around this time, then-King Bhumibol had taken up raising birds as a hobby. In a public ceremony, King Bhumibol decreed that everyone should take a moment that day to show respect and appreciation for the beauty of all birds. Slotegraaf, who was at the ceremony and had brought a turkey with him from the United States, saw his chance. He jumped up on a table and cut the turkey's head off with an axe, and stared straight at King Bhumibol. Slotegraaf had read §112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which specifies a prison sentence for the crime of lèse majesté: insulting the king. He committed a crime by killing a bird.

Note to Araucaria Man: Another official source! :)

Grammatically, by killing a bird is a prepositional phrase modifying committed. It tells how the crime was committed. The crime was insulting the king; the means was killing a bird. The phrase plays the role of an adverb in the sentence, so I'd call it an adverbial phrase. (Some linguists object to calling it that: see here. I'm using common grammar terminology here, not the specialized terminology of linguists.) Killing here is a gerund: it names the act and serves as the object of by (along with the rest of the phrase).

(4) The sentence asserts that killing the bird was a crime. In other words, this interpretation is the same as (2), but in speech the emphasis on "a crime" isn't necessary:

The prosecuting attorney in the first passage overlooked one important matter of law. Regardless of the trespass and the illegal discharge of a firearm, Slotegraaf committed a crime by killing a bird—the little-known crime of avicide.


So, there are three distinct meanings here: (1) causal entanglement or simultaneity between the crime and the killing, (2) asserting that killing the bird was a crime, and (3) killing a bird was the means by which he committed a crime. The sentence without "by" can express (1) or (2), and the sentence with "by" can express (2) or (3). Context, especially what the crime is understood to be, and whether the listener already knows that "he" killed a bird and whether it was a crime, determines which meaning a listener will hear. Without context, both sentences are unclear.

If you were marked wrong for choosing by killing, then you were robbed.

There might be a way to get the sentence without by to express (3), but I haven't been able to think of a silly story where that works. And as always in English, there's probably some weird context that could force an interpretation that I haven't thought of.

  • 1
    sigh I guess from the vote totals that people are going to award you or MfI the bounty and move forward with the idea that one or both are 'correct' but given the original question it's completely incorrect to insert a preposition into the sentence. You're doing the kid a bad turn inspiring 'em that there's anything questionable about the teacher's behavior. Nothing in the question permits or mentions a preposition; you can't just insert one as a "form" of kill.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 9:00
  • @lly I agree with you that "by killing" isn't a form of the verb "kill". I'm answering the OP's question about the differences in grammar and meaning between the two sentences. In the absence of clearer information, I'm assuming that the exam question was multiple-choice and "by killing" was one of the options. But I'm focusing on English, not on the exam. The line about "you were robbed" is a bit of humor, after all that talk about crimes. If we learned that the exam really asked specifically for a form of the verb "kill", I'd alter or remove it.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 13:13
  • 1
    Thanks for your answer and your in-depth explanation, which I think will be both useful and good reading for (high-level) learners here. You gave me a tough decision and ended up costing me (in conjunction with MFI) 700 points. Must of (oh, look what I did there) been worth it though, otherwise I wouldn't have done it! Hope the research is going well :) Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 23:17

Both options are grammatically correct and have the same meaning, but "by killing" isn't a form of a verb; it's a preposition plus a verb. I guess that's why the answer (to this test/homework question) is different from yours.

  • +1 for addressing the nub of why the kid's answer is completely wrong for this question, even if the analysis of the sense is wrong. (The simple gerund is more ambiguous than the form with the preposition. They might and most likely mean the same thing, but not necessarily.)
    – lly
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 3:17
  • It's not fully clear from the wording, but it sounds to me like the test/homework question was multiple-choice, and "killing" and "by killing" were two of the choices.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 8:24


Well, before anything else, let's address that by killing is not a form of the verb kill. It's a prepositional phrase that employs a form of the verb kill. It is wrong for this question the same way

He committed a crime and, while driving to purchase a frozen burrito at the Circle K three days afterwards, he felt a sudden bump as though he had hit a pothole or a small animal which he might have killed, possibly a bird.

is wrong. It's grammatically correct but completely outside the scope of acceptable answers based on the wording of the question.

There are lots of prepositions, conjunctions, &c. that work just fine here. By killing, in killing, through killing, of killing, without killing, beyond killing all work just fine. So do like killing and such as killing. Some of them mean the death is the crime; some of them mean the death is separate from the crime; some mean the death never happened. It's not important. They're all equally irrelevant to the question being asked.


He committed a crime _____ (kill) a bird.

wants some form of the verb kill. Your choices are kill, kills, to kill, killed, killing, and (probably) any of an utter horde of English modal constructions like will kill, about to kill, be about to kill, was about to kill, might have been about to kill, &c. with the exception of Southern English constructions like might've ought've could've been a-fixing to kill which tend to induce apoplexy in English teachers. They aren't very important here though, since the absence of a comma and inability to use a conjunction like and or but means you can't use any straightforward verb form like

He committed a crime and killed a bird.

or even its poetic/musical cousin

He committed a crime... [babybabyooh] killed a bird...

These kinds of questions are designed to force students to acquaint themselves with changing verbs around to make participles (verbal adjectives) and gerunds (verbal nouns).


A common focus of these kinds of questions is contrasting the active process of ing forms with the passive accomplished fact of ed forms. I am boring means I cause other people to feel boredom. I am bored means I feel boredom caused by someone or something else.

The passive ed form doesn't work because it has a direct object and kill doesn't have indirect objects. (Some other verbs like give or offer are different, since their indirect objects can be left where the direct object would normally go.)

The answer must be some form of killing, as either an adjective or a noun.


The most straightforward way this works is with a colon:

He committed a crime: killing a bird.

He committed a crime and that crime was the killing of a bird. This is almost exactly the same as the meaning of He committed a crime by killing a bird. If you were curious about the nuance, it's that by killing means that the action broke some law but it was possibly a broader statute with other aspects. The version with the colon means that the bird-killing is itself precisely the crime. The former could describe poaching or hunting out of season, but the latter (speaking strictly) couldn't unless more context was added. The bird-killing itself is a crime under any circumstances.

Another straightforward but separate way this works is with a comma:

He committed a crime, killing a bird.

He committed a crime and, as a result of that crime, a bird was killed.

Now, based on the way the question is being asked, you can't add either punctuation but

He committed a crime killing a bird.

can mean either one of them. Since it can also be understood as a terser form of he committed a crime while killing a bird, it can also mean that he was in the middle of the action of killing a bird (intentionally or not, connected or not) at the moment he committed the crime.

Now, absent any other context, most people are going to assume a connection between the crime and the ornithocide. That makes the grammatical ambiguity a little displeasing to start with, even if you don't take a very strict view about misplaced modifiers. Nonetheless, it's a perfectly valid answer to your teacher's question.


Also, unless your teacher told you only certain verb forms were allowed,

He committed a crime having killed a bird.

is also acceptable, although it suffers from the same ambiguity. Most people will take it as his action of having killed a bird constituted a crime but, grammatically, it could theoretically mean that, with the experience gained by killing a single bird, he proceeded to commit a crime.

  • This answer is very unclear right from the very begining. Please don't mind my saying but I think it's very confusing. Please make it more clear. It's good that you brought in multiple possibilities, without explaining more or without much clarity. Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 7:35
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    lly, you've got a lot of good stuff here, but I can see what Man_From_India was reacting to (and the problem is fixable for a shot at the bounty). 1) There's a lot of information that's distracting. It's either tangential (could be left out or moved to footnotes), or not obvious how it relates directly to the question (tie it in better). 2) The question is broad, which makes it difficult to answer comprehensively. The organization of the answer seems like disparate, disjointed pieces. (cont'd)
    – fixer1234
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 20:36
  • 1
    Instead of lettered sections, it would be better with topic headings and a little wording to tie it back to specific issues in the question. I think you probably cover all the issues in the question but it requires work by the reader to figure out what part contains the answer to what issue. With a little polish, though, this could be a really good answer.
    – fixer1234
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 20:36

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