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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.

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