1. Why do we use 'telling' in the following sentence?

Was it difficult, telling your mum and dad?

-Well, yes and no.

  1. Instead of 'telling' could we say 'to tell'?

  2. What's the difference between them?

Thank you.

  • 1
    They are both grammatical and mean almost exactly the same thing. Telling has a slight tendency to refer to the actual process of telling, whilst to tell inclines fore to the wider fact of having to tell. But most of the time they are interchangeable.
    – WS2
    Feb 12, 2016 at 20:46
  • What part of speech is 'telling'? Is it gerund used as a noun?
    – user159328
    Feb 12, 2016 at 20:52
  • 1
    @BillJ ...telling your mum & dad is a noun clause (using a gerund). It actually qualifies the subject of the sentence, namely it. There is no object, just a complement difficult.
    – WS2
    Feb 12, 2016 at 21:19
  • 1
    "Telling your mum and dad" is a clause which functions as a noun. It is effectively a parenthetical clause, and, if it were embedded as an actual parenthetical, the sentence would read "Was it (telling your mum and dad) difficult?" Thus that clause identifies the noun corresponding to the pronoun "it" in the sentence "Was it difficult?" (which is a perfectly fine sentence by itself, without the troublesome clause).
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 12, 2016 at 22:45
  • 1
    @WS2: You're right. I'm sorry. I'll delete the comment. Don Feb 13, 2016 at 10:58

4 Answers 4


I feel like "telling" emphasizes the process, the way we would use the imperfect aspect in languages that have such a thing. It is very subtle. I tried it out with different verbs: Was it difficult, cooking this sauce? Was it difficult, choreographing that routine? Each time I tried it, I got the sense that the whole process was in the spotlight and not final outcome. Great question! It was fun thinking about it.

  • You're on the right lines, but it's not used for emphasis; rather it's used as an afterthought to clarify the meaning of the pronoun "it". I've just posted an answer with a fuller explanation.
    – BillJ
    Feb 13, 2016 at 9:23

The main difference that I see has to do with context.

You could ask the question "Was it difficult to tell your Mom that you have cancer?" even if the conversation had nothing to do with your Mom or your cancer. The form "Was it difficult to X" introduces the question with no expectation that someone already understands what X is.

You would only ask the question, "Was it difficult, telling your Mom that you have cancer?" if the conversation was very recently talking about how they had told their Mom about this problem. That's because "Was it difficult, Xing" contains a small pause, as if the asker wanted to stop at "Was it difficult?" but immediately realized that there were many possible things that they could be talking about (for example "was it difficult, fighting the cancer?") and they wanted to be more specific.


The construction is called 'right dislocation'. It occurs when the speaker utters a pronoun and then realises it may not be clear what the pronoun is being used to refer to. The speaker then adds this information in clause-final position, as a sort of 'afterthought'. In the OP's example, the referent of "it" may be unclear, so the explanatory clause is added. It's not a noun, but a clause outside the nucleus. The infinitival to tell your mum and dad would be okay, and analysed just the same. The comma is vital in such constructions.


Well I think the confusion comes from the misconception that the two statements are being understood as a verb or a preposition and a verb but that is a misconception because "to tell" I believe would actually be a infinitive verb. Understanding that "to tell" is an infinitive verb, we know that "to tell" becomes an adjective or adverb phrase that expresses purpose or intent. Which means the question with "to tell" could be understood as the question of was the intent to express that action difficult, or was that action itself difficult. However when you say "telling" you are asking clearly if the action of telling was difficult.

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