What is the difference between -ing form + noun and noun + -ing form ?

For example: Learning English and English learning

Please answer in general, not just about the example.

Thanks a lot for your answer.


Words ending in -ing can be

  • gerunds - a verb used as if it were a noun. Gerunds take adverbs and can have a complement (object).
  • present participles


  • nouns formed from verbs (verbal nouns). Nouns take adjectives and cannot have a complement (object).

Learning English - learning is a verb, English is a noun English Learning - English is an adjective, learning is a noun.

It's not always obvious which, and other words in the sentence can change the -ing word from a gerund to a noun.

Other examples:

  • For musicians, practising [gerund] is essential.
  • For musicians, practising [gerund] an instrument [complement] is essential
  • For musicians, regular [adjective] practising [noun] is essential.
  • For musicians, regular [adjective] practising an instrument [complement] is essential. WRONG. An -ing word cannot both have by an adjective and a direct complement. Other solutions are needed; the -ing word must be used either as a gerund, or as a verbal noun, but not both at once.
  • For musicians, regularly [adverb] practising [gerund] an instrument is essential.
  • For musicians, the regular [adjective] practising [noun] of an instrument is essential.

Summarised from https://linguapress.com/grammar/gerunds.htm

  • Nitpick: instead of "English is an adjective", I'd say "English is a noun modifier". (Also, the distinction between gerunds and participles and verbal nounts is controversial, since they're identical in most dialects of English.) – Anonymous May 4 at 14:53

These are different constructs that happen to mean the same thing in this example.

Learning English is a gerund clause, where learning is a verb and English is its object. It functions as a noun phrase, like a subordinate clause.

English learning is a noun+noun phrase, where English is a noun modifer. This doesn't specify the relationship between the two words, but the most obvious meaning is where English is the language being learned, so the meaning is the same as learning English.

Both phrases are syntactically ambiguous, and could be parsed in other ways:

  • Learning English could be a noun phrase of participle + noun: English which is learning, or English [people] who are learning. (In a suitable context, it could also serve as a progressive verb phrase: "She is learning English.")
  • English learning could be a gerund clause, like learning English, but with English as the subject: the situation where English is learning, or perhaps where English people are learning or where someone named English is learning.
  • English learning could also be adjective + noun, so the meaning is something like knowledge from England or learning in the English style.

These interpretations are much less likely, so they would only be understood in a suitable context. So in practice both phrases are unambiguous, and they mean the same thing. (There's a slight difference in usage: native speakers prefer English learning for a concrete activity but learning English abstractly, so they'd say "How is your English learning going?" but "Knowing Dutch makes learning English easier.".)

If you use the same constructs with different words, different parses are likely, and they can still be ambiguous. For example, burning coal might be a gerund clause ("Burning coal causes a lot of pollution"), or it might be participle + noun ("a firebox full of burning coal").

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