A verbal is a noun or adjective formed from a verb. Writers sometimes make mistakes by using a verbal in place of a verb, and in very formal writing, by confusing different types of verbals. This section covers three different verbals: the participle (which acts as an adjective), the gerund (which acts as a noun), and the infinitive (which also acts as a noun).
The fundamental difference between verbals and other nouns and adjectives is that verbals can take their own objects, even though they are no longer verbs:
Building a house is complicated.
In this example, the noun phrase "a house" is the direct object of the verbal "building", even though "building" is a noun rather than a verb.
A participle is an adjective formed from a verb. To make a present participle, you add "-ing" to the verb, sometimes doubling the final consonant:
"think" becomes "thinking"
"fall" becomes "falling"
"run" becomes "running"
The second type of participle, the past participle, is a little more complicated, since not all verbs form the past tense regularly. The following are all past participles:
the sunken ship
a ruined city
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Note that only transitive verbs can use their past participles as adjectives, and that unlike other verbals, past participles do not take objects (unless they are part of a compound verb).
A gerund is a noun formed from a verb. To make a gerund, you add "-ing" to the verb, just as with a present participle. The fundamental difference is that a gerund is a noun, while a participle is an adjective:
I enjoy running. ("Running" is a noun acting as the direct object of the verb "enjoy.")
Stay away from running water. ("Running" is an adjective modifying the noun "water.")
There are two common problems that come up when writers use verbals. The first is that since verbals look like verbs, they sometimes cause students to write fragmentary sentences:
[WRONG] Oh, to find true love!
[WRONG] Jimmy, swimming the most important race of his life.
The second problem is a very fine point, which most editors and some teachers no longer enforce. Although they look the same, gerunds and present participles are different parts of speech, and need to be treated differently. For example, consider the following two sentences:
I admire the woman finishing the report.
I admire the woman's finishing the report.
In the first example, "finishing" is a participle modifying the noun "woman": in other words, the writer admires the woman, not what she is doing; in the second example, "finishing" is a participle, modified by the possessive noun "woman's": in other words, the writer admires not the woman herself but the fact that she is finishing the report.