• A gerund or a gerund phrase is always singular as a subject


    Is the following statement grammatically correct? “Please wear your proper uniform. Wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers are strictly prohibited.”

    That question was posted recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by a member who goes by the username Youssef. When he joined the Forum in January of 2012, Youssef described himself then as a “non-traditional” college student almost in his mid-thirties, and I recall receiving two private notes from him expressing appreciation for the Forum’s insights and tips that he said were helping broaden his English skills.

    The answer to that very basic grammar question raised by Youssef is, of course, that it is incorrect because of the subject-verb disagreement in the statement’s second sentence, “Wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers are strictly prohibited.”

    But the tough and complicated part is explaining precisely why there’s a subject-verb disagreement in that sentence. Isn’t the compound subject “shorts, sandos, and slippers” clearly plural in number, in which case the form of the linking verb “be” connecting it to the complement “strictly prohibited” should be the plural “are” rather than the singular “is”?

    As we will find on closer inspection, however, that two-pronged question is incorrectly formulated and wrongly answered. To begin with, the compound noun “shorts, sandos and slippers” isn’t really the subject of that sentence. It’s just a qualifier of the gerund “wearing,” with which it forms the gerund phrase “wearing of shorts, sandos and slippers.”

    That gerund phrase is actually functioning as a noun and is the true subject of the sentence “Wearing of shorts, sandos and slippers are strictly prohibited,” which I have pointed out at the outset is grammatically wrong.

    But then that analysis immediately leads us to yet another tricky grammar question: Why would that sentence be wrong when its gerund subject has three obviously plural components—“shorts,” “sandos,” and “slippers”? Shouldn’t these three plural components of that gerund phrase make it automatically plural itself, in which case there shouldn’t be any subject-verb disagreement at all in the sentence “Wearing of shorts, sandos and slippers are strictly prohibited”?

    The answer to that question lies in the very nature of gerunds as a grammatical form.
    Recall now that a gerund, which is formed by adding the suffix “-ing” to the base form of a verb, is not a verb anymore but a noun. Like what a noun does, a gerund can serve as the subject, as a complement, or as an object in a sentence. A gerund phrase, of course, is simply a gerund plus its qualifier or any other modifying elements, as in the case of the gerund phrase “wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers.”

    And now mark down this defining characteristic of a gerund or gerund phrase: It is always singular in number. As a subject, it always needs the singular form of the verb.

    This is the very reason why no matter what gerund we use as a subject or how long and complicated a gerund phrase might be worded, it is always treated as singular.

    So, in the particular case of the gerund phrase “wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers” as the subject of a sentence, it will always need the singular form of the linking verb “be” whatever the tense of the verb may be: “Wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers is strictly prohibited” (present tense singular), “Wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers was strictly prohibited” (past tense singular), and “Wearing of shorts, sandos, and slippers has been strictly prohibited” (present perfect tense singular). It is incorrect to use the plural forms “are,” “were,” and “have been” for a gerund or gerund phrase when it’s the subject of the sentence, as in this case.

    Keep that in mind about gerunds and gerund phrases and you’ll never get into a subject-verb disagreement problem ever when using them.

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