If you’re like me, every two years you breathlessly watch the Olympics and follow the amazing wins and devastating losses. For two weeks, you’re invested in the results of swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball. Unfortunately, it can be hard to understand the commentary. The rules of the sports are complicated, and the specific vocabulary is unfamiliar. There’s also the risk of confusing two very different—but suspiciously similar-looking—types of English words: gerunds and verbs in the progressive form. I may not be able to help you figure out the intricacies of the scoring of Simone Biles’s epic floor routine, but I can definitely help you with the word problem!
The commonality between gerunds and progressive verbs (also known as continuous verbs) is the ending: -ing. All gerunds and all progressive verbs share the –ing ending. The difference between the two is in the usage. But how can you tell the difference? Let’s use the Olympic Games to help us out!
Progressive verbs are the most intuitive usage for the –ing ending, since we most associate that ending with action verbs. If you are using a progressive verb it must always be preceded by a helping verb: is or was or has been, for instance. Here are some examples:
Katie Ledecky keeps winning gold medals because she has been swimming since she was very young.
During the Opening Ceremonies, Michael Phelps was holding the American flag.
See? These –ing words are very obviously verbs, serving the purpose of explaining what the subject of the sentence is doing—what their action is. A gerund, on the other hand, serves a different purpose entirely.
Though it looks just like a progressive verb, a gerund acts just like a noun—that is, a person, place, thing, or idea—and therefore can be the subject or object of a sentence. Gerunds are usually associated with activities and especially with sports, so the Olympics are a great place to find them! Here are some examples:
Kristin Armstrong won her third gold medal for cycling.
Simone Biles won her gymnastics gold medal by flipping, jumping, and leaping throughout her floor routine.
Easy, right? These are, of course, all examples using American athletes. How can you use progressive verbs and gerunds to describe athletes from your home country?