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There are nouns which are formed from verbs; deverbals. If I take teaching, running and rambling, I have the strong intuition that the first and last can be used as nouns, whereas I can't really imagine "running" being used as a noun with the plural form i.e. "runnings". I don't exactly know why I use the plural form to "gauge" if this works, but I do, and since I know nothing about grammar, then this surely means it's about usage and what I have heard as a learner...

Is there an overarching rationale for enabling such verbs as nouns; for instance a category of verbs, a cluster of semantics, or a rule of grammar whereby you would know which verbs can be "deverbed" and which can't. Or is it just the case by case evolution of the individual usage of each of those verbs?

When you can't "deverb" a verb, such as with "running"(if I'm right), does that offer any insight as to how meanings/sentences are constructed when itemizing the process of the verb? As when you think about for how long, how much, how far and how many times, you would use distance, time, laps, and such concrete quantification or result for the process, and not "runnings". Or is it once again usage specific?

  • "Running" is absolutely a noun: "Running is my favorite form of exercise." Can you be more specific? – cpast May 2 '15 at 23:15
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    @cpast But what about with the plural as in "runnings"? – user16335 May 2 '15 at 23:31
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    +1 for a very interesting question. Off the top of my head I'd guess it's mostly a semantic matter: whether the deverbal sense which evolves accommodates pluralization. For instance, running usually signifies an activity, which is a sort of mass noun; but in the specific meaning of occasions of conducting a horserace we may speak of consecutive or past runnings of the Derby. – StoneyB May 2 '15 at 23:40
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    I need to go back to bed and do some more sleepings. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 3 '15 at 12:14
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Count and non-count

First, let me address the question of attaching the plural suffix -s. It is true that if we can attach -s to pluralize, we have a noun; but it's not true that if we have a noun, we can attach -s to pluralize. Ignoring obvious exceptions like irregular plurals (children) and zero plurals (sheep), there's a major division of uses of nouns into count and non-count we need to think about.

What's a count noun? Basically, one you can count:

He has three briefcases. (count)
*He has three luggages. (non-count)

The noun luggage doesn't easily appear in the plural (luggages) with a cardinal numeral (three), so we conclude it's a non-count noun. To some extent, this is arbitrary, which we can tell because it differs according to language, and sometimes even changes over time in the same language (informations was once countable, but is no longer).

The same count / non-count distinction applies to nouns derived from the -ing form of verbs. And whether it's count or non-count does depend largely on how the speaker conceptualizes the word. There are a number of fairly broad categories, such as general concepts generally being uncountable and instances of activities being countable, but these are largely the same as for nouns derived in other fashions, and a complete account of the semantic categories that correspond to count and non-count is beyond the scope of this answer; the topic is treated in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) starting on page 333, and further references can be found in its bibliography.

Running specifically is a count noun in a few uses (one of which I'll illustrate below), but is often a non-count noun indicating a general concept (as in Running is my favorite form of exercise). That means your intuition about runnings isn't enough to tell us whether it's a noun! In fact, it's a little bit more complicated than that, as we'll see below.


Testing for nounhood

So how do we tell if an -ing form is a noun, if checking for plural -s isn't enough? Basically, we want to see if the word is used syntactically like other nouns, and not like other verbs. To do that, we can use a number of tests (see CGEL, starting on page 81):

  1. Does it inflect like a noun?

    "While it's not fair to compare previous years, if you look back at recent runnings, the bubble horse had anywhere between 20 and 30 points, with non-restricted stakes serving as the important tiebreaker," Rogers said. (USA Today, 2012-06-14; Sports section, p.1)

    By this test, runnings can indeed be a noun. But there are many other tests:

  2. Does it take a determiner?

    The walking wasn't so hard on my knees, but the running really hurt.

  3. Does it take adjectives or adverbs as modifiers?

    I solved the problem by quickly running to the store. 

    Here we have an adverb modifying running, the head of a gerund-participial clause.

    Slow running is easier for me than fast running.

    Here we have an adjective modifying the deverbal noun running, head of a noun phrase.

  4. Does it take verb-like or noun-like complementation or modifiers?

    The most famous running of the bulls is that of the eight-day festival of Sanfermines in honour of Saint Fermin in Pamplona [...]

    Here we have not only a determiner (the), an adjectival phrase (most famous), but an of-phrase as well.

When you see a form like running, it may be verbal or deverbal. You have to look at the particular use to decide.


Semantic limitations on deriving nouns from -ing forms

There aren't really specific limitations on what sorts of verbs can undergo this derivation. Of course, they must have an -ing form, so defective verbs like must and beware are ruled out. And in many cases a corresponding noun already exists with a different shape, like classification in place of classifying. Even in those cases, using the -ing form as a noun is still usually possible, though as CGEL notes (p.1702):

In such cases the ·ing formation often tends to sound (in varying degrees) less idiomatic, less natural than the other, but not to the extent of being ungrammatical.

But in other cases, such as run and running, a deverbal noun exists with another shape, and we can see a clear difference in meaning:

I'm going out for a quick run.
??I'm going out for a quick running.

We might treat cases like these as an example of blocking, with the existence of the noun run preventing the use of running with the intended meaning.

Cases like this aside, this sort of derivation is really fairly productive in English. It is true that it's probably more likely when the original verb refers to an action or process, but that's not exactly a semantic limitation, more of a tendency. I don't believe deriving a noun from the -ing form of a verb has any special semantic requirements.

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Before we get off track into whether they can be plural (which is irrelevant to whether they can be nouns), let's be clear on what you are speaking of.

Your examples are of participles (verbals ending in -ing) which look identical to their corresponding gerunds (nounals ending in -ing).

Forming gerunds from verbs is a normal feature of modern English; it has nothing to do with "verbing" of nouns, or "nouning" of verbs (or deverbing, as you seem to call it).

Verbing is what happens when a word that was traditionally a noun (such as input, impact, or conference) starts being used as a verb.

Nouning is what happens when a word that was traditionally a verb (such as install, remodel, ask, or buy) starts being used as a noun.

These later two phenomena (both of whose names, nouning and verbing, are examples of verbing) are the hard ones to figure, as it depends on frequency of usage as to how "accepted" the new usage is. (I, for one, still cringe at "remodel" as a noun, and vehemently oppose "install" as a noun, because we already have the normally-formed noun "installation"!)

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