Below is the 4th meaning and example sentence for the verb "tell", from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

  1. [intransitive] (informal) to let somebody know a secret

e.g.) 'Who are you going out with tonight?' 'That would be telling!'(=it's a secret)

Is "telling" in bold a gerund, or just a present participle that forms a present-continuous form along with "be" in front of it?

  • It looks like an adjective.
    – user178049
    Aug 5 '17 at 14:38

You could interpret this as a conditional continuous conjugation of the verb "to tell." After all, you could conjugate this differently with the same meaning:

I'll never tell!

I think, however, that using "that" as the subject makes it problematic to do so. "That" is not a reasonable subject for an intransitive usage of "to tell." (That will never tell doesn't make sense.) Therefore, I'd say this sentence is "that" + linking verb + a gerund complement.

In other words, I would interpret this as a continuous form:

I would be telling!

But I would interpret this as a gerund complement:

That would be telling!

In short, that in this sentence is not doing the telling. It's referring to the speaker's telling.

  • Thank you for answering very much. Your answer makes sense. So I think, to interpret it to my own language, you're saying that "that" in the sentence is not the one who does telling but the action of "telling" itself and that "telling" in the sentence is a gerund. Have I correctly understood your idea? Feb 22 '18 at 19:50
  • @SmartHumanism Yes, I believe you have understood. More specifically, I would say "that" refers implicitly to an idea like "answering your question." So the sentence could be rephrased as "answering your question would be telling." Here, I would say that answering and telling are both gerunds and are complements. Feb 22 '18 at 20:11

Telling may be (and seems to be in your example) a noun meaning an act of narration or disclosing information. In that case, it can't be used without a determiner.

The link to the use of "telling" as a noun

So if you mean to say that the name of a person you are going out with will be announced later, it might be "There would be a telling about it"-- There's neither gerund or participle in the phrase.

  • The example is from Oxford Learner's Dictionary. I don't think Oxford used the wrong grammar.
    – user178049
    Aug 5 '17 at 14:46
  • But I think although there is a noun form "a telling" for the verb "tell", it does not necessarily mean the use of the gerund form "telling" is forbidden, does it? Aug 11 '17 at 15:03

A gerund cannot be transitive or intransitive. It's a verb here in the continuous aspect. Notice that it's informal.

  • 1
    But as in the examples like "I like eating meat.", I think a gerund can be used as transitive. And there can be other examples the gerund is used as intransitive as well. I can not see any connections between being a gerund and being intransitive or transitive. Aug 5 '17 at 13:46
  • @SmartHumanism eating meat is a gerund phrase like, "I like flying in an airplane" Aug 5 '17 at 13:55
  • "Gerund" is a verb form; of course, it can be either transitive or intransitive.
    – user178049
    Aug 5 '17 at 14:39
  • @user178049 I cannot tell how being intransitive or transitive is connected to the question. I am confused, can you explain a little bit about the question? Aug 11 '17 at 15:05

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