1. The problem is getting anybody to admit that.

    It's Present Simple + Gerund.

  2. The problem is getting worse.

    It's Present Continuous.

Did I make a mistake? Or is it a well-known ambiguity?


3 Answers 3


There's no 'ambiguity', as you put it. These are simply two different constructions where the contrast is between a reversible specifying construction and a catenative one:

[1] The problem is [getting anybody to admit that].

The bracketed element here is a non-finite clause headed by the verb "getting" functioning as predicative complement of auxiliary "is". But this is not the progressive (continuous) auxiliary, but copular "be". It's clear that it is analysed this way by virtue of being reversible, cf. "Getting anybody to admit that is the problem".

[2] The problem is [getting worse].

This is a different construction altogether. Though the bracketed element is again a non-finite clause, here it is functioning not as PC but as catenative complement of "is", which this time is the progressive (continuous) auxiliary. Thus the matrix clause is present tense, progressive aspect.

  • Can you add examples, where "is getting" functioning as PC and "getting" as gerund ?
    – yalov
    Dec 5, 2017 at 17:58
  • if [1] is not progressive, then how make it progressive for saying what "The problem is [getting anybody to admit that]" exactly now, and not "always" or "in present" ?
    – yalov
    Dec 6, 2017 at 11:30

If you know a gerund is a noun in a sentence then you will easily find one.

  • The problem is getting anybody to admit that. - Gerund. What is the problem?
  • The problem is getting worse. - Verb. What is happening to the problem?

Edit (concerning the infinitive+ing comment): The infinitive form of a verb is the verb in its basic form. It is the version of the verb which will appear in the dictionary. (Grammar-monster)

  • run, smile, jump, eat, swim, etc. are all infinitive forms of the verbs with dropped "to".

There's no ambiguity in many of the common situations this can happen, but sometimes there can be. Context helps, or you must ask for clarification if you haven't been paying attention.

Get {modifier that describes a state} is a common idiom that means "doing/experiencing what is needed to transition into that state" - and past participle forms of many verbs can be used as modifiers.

So is getting {modifier that describes a state} is going to be almost always assumed to be continuous just because it's a very common thing to express in English.

If the subject of be is a person, there's little ambiguity, because we are almost always expressing what someone is trying to do or change into.

I am getting treated at the hospital (I am doing what I need to transition into to the state of "treated" at the hospital. You would likely never be saying you are an activity-in-progress of being treated at the hospital.)

There could be a little ambiguity when the subject is not a person.

The problem is getting treated at the hospital. (Am I having a problem treated or is there a problem with getting treated?)1

Context must override the ambiguity here. If you come into a middle of a conversation with something like this and feel the need to ask a question to clarify, don't feel bad.

If you want to make it clear, since gerunds are nouns, they can take determiners, so that's a clue - in this case possessive pronouns would work:

The problem is { me | you | anyone | someone } getting treated at the hospital.

or rephrasing:

I am getting my problem treated at the hospital.

I have a problem with getting treated at the hospital.

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