Flying Planes: The Many Uses of -ing in English

The ending -ing has many uses in English. A verb ending in -ing can be a noun (called a gerund) or part of a progressive verb (called a participle). The -ing participle can be an adjective or part of an adverbial phrase. Let’s break down the most important uses of the ending -ing in English.

Progressive/Continuous Tenses

English has a lot of tenses called progressive or continuous tenses that all use a form of the verb to be along with the present participle, ending in -ing.

  • I am writing a blog post.
  • I was writing a blog post.
  • I will be writing a blog post.
  • I would be writing a blog post, but I’m watching a video instead.

In each of these examples, the action of writing is happening now, or at the same time of the form of be. I am writing means at this moment, I am in the middle of writing. I was writing means means that during a certain time in the past, I was busy writing. If I started writing at 10am, stopped writing at noon, I would say I was writing at any moment between 10am and noon.

The progressive or continuous tenses exist in all the same tenses as the simple tense: I have been writing, I had been writing, I will have been writing, etc. The time reference is determined by the form of to be.

  • I started writing at 9am, and it’s 10:30 now. I have been writing for an hour and a half.
  • I started writing at 9am, but the telephone rang at 10:30. When the telephone rang, I had been writing for an hour and a half.
  • I will start writing at 6pm. If you call me at 8:30, I will have been writing for two and a half hours.
  • It’s 7pm. If I had started writing at 5pm, I would have been writing for two hours.
Writing as a Gerund

The same exact form, ending in -ing, can be used as a noun. So it can be the subject of a sentence:

  • Writing takes a lot of discipline.
  • Writing things helps me remember them.

Or as an object:

  • I really like writing.
  • You should give writing a chance. You might like it!
  • I’m tired of writing. I want to watch TV.
Use the Gerund after a Preposition

In the last example, writing is the object of the preposition of. In fact, you always use the gerund (writing) and not the infinitive (to write) when it comes right after a preposition. You’ll see this in phrasal verbs and in any other place that looks like this: [preposition] + _____.

  • I’m going to take up writing.
  • I have to keep on writing. I’m not done yet.
  • I need to catch up on writing. I’m behind schedule.
  • I’m interested in writing.
  • I’m bored with writing.

To is of course a preposition, so you may wonder why the infinitive is to write and not to *writing. Just think of to as part of the infinitive. If to is a regular preposition, for example part of a phrasal verb, then it’s followed by the gerund. Compare:

  • I want to write. (an infinitive)
  • I look forward to writing. (to is part of the phrasal verb look forward to something)
  • I started to write when I was a child. (an infinitive)
  • I need to get back to writing. (to is part of the phrasal verb get back to something)
The Participle as an Adjective

The -ing participle can also be used as an adjective, describing a noun that is doing something at that moment. This construction is identical in meaning to who/that is/are [verb]ing…

  • Baking bread smells great. (=Bread that is baking smells great.)
  • It’s nice to watch flying birds. (=It’s nice to watch birds that are flying.)
  • Sleeping children look so peaceful. (=Children who are sleeping look so peaceful.)
  • The falling snow is beautiful. (=The snow that is falling is beautiful.)
The Participle as an Adverb

The same -ing participle can be used as an adverb, or at the beginning of a phrase that functions like an adverb. In this case, it tells you how or why or when you do something. It’s identical in meaning to phrases that begin with when or by or while, etc.

  • Walking home, I saw my friend Pete. (=When/While I was walking home, I saw my friend Pete.)
  • Running three times a week, he lost ten pounds. (=By running or because he was running three times a week, he lost ten pounds.)
  • We’re able to eat much more healthy food cooking our own meals. (=We’re able to eat much more healthy food by or because we cook our own meals.)
  • Slipping on some ice, she fell on the sidewalk. (=After or Because she slipped on some ice, she fell on the sidewalk.)

In fact, you can say the same things without dropping the when, by, while, etc.

  • While walking home, I saw my friend Pete.
  • By running three times a week, he lost ten pounds.
  • We’re able to eat much more healthy food when cooking our own meals.
  • After slipping on some ice, she fell on the sidewalk.
Flying Planes

A phrase like flying planes is actually ambiguous; it can mean two things. Flying can be an adjective, meaning planes that are flying, or it can be a gerund, the activity of operating planes. If it’s an adjective, the phrase is plural because planes is the main noun, and it’s plural. If it’s a gerund, it’s singular. These are both fine:

  • Flying planes are beautiful.
  • Flying planes is beautiful.

The first one means that you think planes that are flying in the sky look beautiful. The second one means that you really like to fly (operate) planes, and you think it’s a beautiful thing to do. Here’s another pair:

  • Baking cookies remind me of the holidays. (Cookies that are baking in the oven give off a nice smell and make me think of the holidays.)
  • Baking cookies reminds me of the holidays. (The activity of baking cookies makes me think of the holidays.)
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