The many ways ‘-ing’ makes a word

A reader recently asked why a building is called a building. The answer has to do with the great variety of functions that '-ing' performs in modern English.

Keith Srakocic/AP
The sign marking the offices for Highmark and the Fifth Avenue Place buliding are reflected in the windows of another skyscraper in downtown Pittsburgh on Oct. 16, 2017.

A reader recently asked why a building is called a building. Given that the construction is finished, why don’t we call it a builded or a built? The answer has to do with the great variety of functions that “-ing” performs in modern English.

First of all, “-ing” forms the present participle of verbs. This participle is used in the present continuous tense to describe ongoing action. “He is building the wall” means he is still in the process; the wall is not finished. Present participles can also be adjectives: “the running water,” “the perspiring tourist.” These adjectives, too, imply that the action is ongoing and incomplete – the tourist is sweating in perpetuity.

Adding “-ing” also produces the gerund, which, you might remember, is a noun formed from a verb. “Singing is fun” – “singing” is a gerund, the subject of the sentence. “Building card towers quickly is my passion” – “building” is a gerund. As we can see from the previous sentence, gerunds still evince some characteristics of verbs, taking direct objects (“card towers”) and being modified by adverbs (“quickly”), not adjectives, as most nouns are. Like the present participle, the gerund also implies that an action is continuing, without an endpoint.

Building, in the sense of “She designed a beautiful building,” is neither a participle nor a gerund, but the sense of ongoing, incomplete action influences our attitudes to the word. 

Building in our sense is a verbal noun (sometimes, confusingly, also called a deverbal noun), a “real noun,” if you will. In contrast to gerunds, these are modified by adjectives (“the beautiful building”) and can take the plural (“the buildings”), just like any other noun. 

They are most commonly formed from verbs by the addition of a suffix such as “-ment” (“an achievement”), “-ance” (“a disappearance”), and, in our case, “-ing” (“a wedding,” “a painting,” and “a building”).

This way of using “-ing” to make verbal nouns is very old; “-ing” was already producing words in the 8th century. It only took over from “-ende” and “-inde” as the standard form of the present participle in the 14th century, and gained the flexibility to combine with nearly all verbs to make gerunds around the same time. The first “-ing” words, then, were not burdened with the participial and gerundial baggage of ongoing or continuous action.

In fact, early on, “-ing” was actually used to make words that carry a sense of completion, that, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “express a completed action.” 

A building, then, doesn’t need to be a built. The “-ing” suffix itself implies that it is finished. We just don’t realize it today, after centuries of influence from those pervasive competing “-ing” forms, the present participle and gerund.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to The many ways ‘-ing’ makes a word
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/In-a-Word/2018/0816/The-many-ways-ing-makes-a-word
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe