How can I distinguish between words which have the -ing in a sentence that are nouns, verbs, or adjectives?

For example sometimes -ing come with word to give us a noun, and sometimes a verb or an adjective.

That interesting snake.
That crawling snake.
That barking dog keeps everyone awake.

Is there any rule to determine whether a word with -ing is a noun, verb, or adjective?

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    It's the same as with any other words. If the word is used as a noun, it is a noun in that specific context. So if I say My commenting on this question is intended to be helpful, the word commenting must be acting as a noun (firstly because it's the grammatical subject of the sentence, secondly because I was able to modify it with the possessive pronoun my). Mar 1, 2015 at 15:26
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    @FumbleFingers Previously you could be excused for saying things like that. Now this is inexcusable. You've been given information from vetted grammar sources and it's very important, if this is meant to be a resource for future readers that you don't mislead them in that way. There is no vetted grammar source that says that because something is a subject, it is a noun. This goes against all the basic tenets of language learning and linguistics. C'mon FF! Mar 2, 2015 at 19:48
  • @Araucaria: Having just just cited this question in a duplicate vtc, I thought I'd better give it a quick eyeball. I can't help noticing that the only answer with any upvotes says If the word with ing comes as a subject or an object, it's a noun. That looks to me like the same thing I said here years ago, which you take strong exception to. I have little interest in these "naming of the parts" exercises, so I'm quite prepared to bow to your opinion (knowledge?! :) But this site needs a definitive Question (+Answer) for this issue, so is there any chance you could provide it here? Jul 13, 2019 at 12:54
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    @FumbleFingers Thanks for the request, old bean. Super busy, unfortunately. Jul 18, 2019 at 6:55

3 Answers 3


It depends on the context; its position in the sentence. 1) If the word with ing comes as a subject or an object, it's a noun. eg. Smiling is an act of kindness. 2) If it comes after the auxiliary "be" it's a verb. eg. The girl is smiling. 3) If it comes before a noun, describing that noun, then it's an adjective. eg. Smiling faces are lovely.
Some words with ing are always adjectives like 'interesting' and 'exciting'.


How can I distinguish between words which have the -ing in a sentence that are nouns, verbs, or adjectives?

There is no general rule up and above what you do normally for any non-verb word.

-ing words are never standalone verbs - the closest they get is being part of an expression of continuous tense - I am walking to the store. Even here, technically it's probably an adverb, since it modifies be.

BUT -ing words do take objects. So they are not verbs per se but verbals.

Adjectives in English immediately precede nouns, and will come after articles. -ing words that follow this pattern are adjectives.

Nouns or noun phrases in English can function as a sentence's subject or object. The subject will come before the verb, objects will come right after the verb. If a sentence with an -ing word is "missing" a subject or object, the -ing word is probably the noun functioning as either one of those.

Running took a lot out of me.

What's the subject of "took"? There's no other choice but running here, so that's it.


The arduous running sapped his energy


Kicking him didn't wake him up

Kicking cannot be the verb of this sentence, even though it might look like it - especially since it has an object. Him can't be the subject because it's an object pronoun. So the only thing left here is for kicking to be the subject (noun) of wake here.

Can -ing words be objects? They can, but I think they cease to be verbals at that point, and are really full fledged nouns.

I gave him a talking.

Why is this a noun and not a verbal? Because you can pluralize it like a noun - and that's probably your main clue.

I gave him three talkings.

As far as why it stops being a verbal - well, like a verbal, you can't really fit an object in there:

I struck the ball with my bat.

There were three strikings the ball with my bat.

a preposition is really needed, splitting it away from the verb:

There were three strikings of the ball with my bat.

and that still sounds horrible.

  • Your examples with "three talkings" and "three strikings" are all non-standard. I think these demonstrate the opposite of what you say, and you cannot in fact form a plural from "talking" or "striking".
    – The Photon
    Apr 2, 2015 at 17:00
  • @ThePhoton: perhaps so; I agree these examples were maybe not the best. But there are other cases where "-ing" nouns clearly can be pluralized, like "readings".
    – sumelic
    Apr 17, 2015 at 16:34

Without a sentence, you can't tell whether an -ing word is a gerund, adjective or verb.

  1. Once you have a sentence, you can look at the -ing word to see if it's describing a noun:

'Where will the [boxing] match take place?' <--- adjective test [-ing is describing a match, which is a noun. What kind of a match? A boxing match.]

  1. Next, if the -ing is not describing anything, you test for a gerund or a noun phrase (-ing acting like a noun):

[Boxing on ice] is dangerous. <--- noun phrase. Find verb, then test if -ing is describing a noun, and you have non phrase left.

[Boxing] can be a lot of fun. <--- gerund. Find verb, test if -ing is describing a noun, and if not then you have a gerund.

[Boxing] is a [challenging] sport. <-- sentence with both a gerund -ing, and an adjective -ing.

  1. And so if the Adjective and the Gerund/Noun Phrase tests have failed, then you have a verb. Just in case test it:

3a. Verb -ing usually is either a combination of a verb + -ing

I [enjoy boxing] very much.

3b. OR, a preposition + -ing , with 'to' frequently acting like a preposition

He didn't object [to boxing] this Sunday

So look at the sentence, and see what's in front of it, do a quick adjective test, and you should quickly figure out how -ing is being used.

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    @Araucaria It's good practice for people learning ESL to look these things up for themselves so that next time they encountering 'ithout', or something similar, they won't be completely confused.
    – NickNo
    Mar 3, 2015 at 15:04

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