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My friend and I were having a casual conversation in the middle of the night. Eventually, we came up with the question - why is building still called building, even though it's already built?

There's more on the list - such as, painting, writing, etc...

I'm guessing it has something to do with gerunds, is that right? if not, why?

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    Yes, it has everything to do with gerunds as you surmise. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 10:07
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    Oh cool. My study finally paid off. Thank you!
    – Skye-AT
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 10:11

3 Answers 3

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It is historically connected with gerunds, but not usefully in the current language.

Every verb can form a gerund meaning the action or process of ..., but only in some verbs has that meaning been extended to the physical objects or materials resulting from or used in the process; and the particular extension of the meaning varies from verb to verb.

So we can talk about a building, a painting, a drawing, a recording, some writing, some knitting, as the object produced, but we don't normally talk about sculpting, playing, creating in that sense.

We talk about shopping, sewing, and washing, referring to the things that we buy, sew, or wash; but we don't use "buying" or "cleaning" in that sense. Oddly we can talk about "mending" as a physical object in the now rather rare sense of clothes that get repaired: we can mend broken furniture or equipment, but we wouldn't refer to the piece of furniture as "a mending" or "some mending".

We can talk about the binding of a book, the wrapping of a parcel (more often "wrapping paper" where it may be interpreted as a participle, but sometimes used on its own) and bandaging and fastenings as physical things; but not usually "attaching" or "supportings".

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    I always think of "the mending" as meaning the clothes that could be mended and so get put in a special cupboard where the sewing box is, and remain there for eternity.
    – Tom V
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 19:47
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    We don't use "a sculpting", but instead "a sculpture" but we do use "a carving", oddly enough. "Playing" is understandable because it doesn't produce a physical output.
    – J...
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 16:35
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    @DarrelHoffman I wouldn't say so - the meaning is similar. A "creature" is generally reference to a "created" automaton of some sort - often rooted in fantasy where a "creature" is some constructed minion of a god-like entity who wields a degree of control over them. The word has gained popular traction as a descriptor of general "creepy-crawly" animals in nature, but even there the etymology would suggest roots in a creationist concept. It's a word that has evolved over time, but the etymological roots are effectively the same.
    – J...
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 18:17
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    @J... Yeah, but even if you were going full-creationist on this one, why does the word only apply to animals (not necessarily just the creepy-crawly ones - I've heard the it to apply to the cute-and-cuddly ones as well, e.g.: "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small", to quote a well-known hymn) and not apply to, say, rocks and trees and well, literally everything else, which are all equally "created" by that mind-set? Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 18:33
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    @DarrelHoffman The word implies an animated or living being, yes. You might consider a tree to be a "creature" from some perspective, but certainly not a rock. The implied meaning of "create" is the biblical sense of creation - the genesis of living things from non-living matter (and not simply "to construct"). Just like we can say a hairdresser "sculpts" someone's hair, the result is not a "sculpture" because we're taking a slightly abstract meaning of the root, so the derivative word does not necessarily apply. English is weird like that...
    – J...
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 18:39
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The answer is -ing had a different role in Old English (where it was sometimes -ung). It was still used to turn verbs into nouns, but they were a different kind of noun that often referred to the product or result of the action rather than the action itself. Even when it didn't, it produced a countable noun referring to a specific act.

For example, an ascung (asking) was a question (thing that one asks), a ceosung (choosing) was a choice, a brecung (breaking) was a fracture, and a feorting was a fart. The word bylding is not attested in this period, but may well have existed with this meaning.

Since it already produced nouns from verbs, the suffix -ing started to be used to form what we now call a gerund sometime in Middle English; until then, infinitives had been used instead. This change was probably cemented when the infinitive ending -en was dropped from verbs in the transition to Early Modern English, so for instance "swimmen is good exercise" became "swimming is good exercise".

This -ing form also came to merge with the -ende verb ending that formerly marked the present participle. The process might have been something like Old English "ic eom swimmende" > Middle English "ic am swimminde" > "ic am swimminge" > "I am swimming"—thus leading to the present oddity where -ing typically has present meaning, but in words like building appears to refer to a past action.

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Gerunds in English are like nouns in that they don't have different tenses like the verbs from which they are derived. I appreciate this is different in other languages such as Japanese, where there are different forms of gerund depending on the tense.

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    I don't think they're like nouns in every respect. For instance, they can take objects and adverbs. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 22:55
  • @Acccumulation: Quite right, though there's a subtlety, in that a given occurrence of a gerund cannot be simultaneously verblike and nounlike: we can say "their efficiently solving the problem" or "their efficient solving of the problem", but not *"their efficiently solving of the problem", nor *"their efficient solving the problem". I believe that nounlike occurrences are like nouns in every respect, though I wouldn't place a very large bet on that belief.
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 4:31
  • @Acccumulation Fish pond / Swimming Pool. Synchronised watch / Synchronised swimming.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 11:54
  • @Astralbee, that shows that they are like nouns in some respects. Your statement was that they were like nouns in every respect.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 12:37
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    These "-ing" words are not gerunds. They're bog-standard nouns which by historical accident happen to be derived from verbs and have the same surface form as gerunds, as @KefSchecter describes in their answer
    – gotube
    Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 22:43

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