Maximum grammar geekery, or What on earth is a gerund, anyway?!

Has it ever occurred to you that lots of the terminology for Latin grammar is what it does? It’s really helpful when trying to explain it.

Consider the Present Participle. The word ‘present’ is itself formed from a present participle in Latin, praesens, meaning present, at hand, prompt etc. And the present participle means something that is happening now, in the present, promptly if you will. Brilliant! But what I really like is that it looks like the Latin form – it’s last three letters, at least. The -ent of ‘present’ resembles the -ens of the Latin form, which corresponds in turn to the -ing of the English form, eg doing – they all have ‘n’ in the middle of the three letters! Am I taking this a bit far? I usually draw my students a little memorial diagram to highlight the ‘n’ thing, like this:



The present participle: does what it is! (Also, one of the more dull images of all time, but this is a post about Latin grammatical terminology. There’s a funny image further down.)

Let us consider next the Perfect tense. The word ‘perfect’ is itself formed from a perfect participle, perfectus, which means finished, ie the meaning of the perfect tense, an action finished, by definition, in the past. Genius!

And the Imperfect tense? Well, that means ‘not perfect’, an action that was ongoing in the past, not finished  – she was doing her homework (imperfect tense; as yet unfinished) when the dog ate it (perfect tense; it’s finished now, isn’t it?).

How about tricksier stuff, like the Gerund. ‘The whaaaaa?’ I hear you cry. Don’t panic! It’s a verbal noun — a noun formed from a verb, like the words running or swimming and so on when used in sentences like ‘running is my passion’, ‘swimming makes me happy’. The word gerund comes from the Latin verb gero (in its gerund form, of course) which  is essentially a verb of doing stuff, getting on with things. One of its meanings is to wage war. That’s getting on with stuff if ever anything was. And what does the gerund mean? Well, it generally expresses the idea of getting on with something. There are some eminent examples of gerunds in mottos, such as the Pope’s own motto, miserando atque eligendo, but also the commonly used phrase modus operandi, meaning a method of doing something, getting something done, if you will.


Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth’s imagining of the Gerund and Gerundive; image from here

Its partner in grammar crimes against student comprehension is the much maligned Gerundive. I always feel quite sorry for the gerundive. A colleague once made a matching fluffy gerund and gerundive pair of little creatures for her classroom to cheer her pupils up. Now I think of it, the gerundive always looked by far the more mischievous of the two. It essentially means the same thing as the gerund but is more adjectival and passive, bless it – though only in a grammatical sense, as it usually has an even stronger sense of something needing to be got on with. Take one of my favourite examples, nunc est bibendum. This means ‘now is the time for drinking needing to be done‘. See how this cheeky little adjective is not actually describing anything, and despite being passive, translates better here as active. In fact, it usually translates better into English as active, so much so that teachers and students alike often ignore its passivity altogether, or confuse it with its fluffy gerund sibling. So many reasons for students to feel aggrieved towards it, now I come to think of it…. To explain its form, ‘gerundive’ has the Latin adjectival ending -ivum (which you can also see in the word ‘adjective’. I love this stuff!), so it is an adjective itself. Like I say, I love this stuff!

Here are some more of my favourite gerundives from everyday life:

  1. My own middle name, Amanda, she who ought to be loved;
  2. The marvellous Miranda, she who ought to be marvelled at (not to be confused with verandah, something which ought to be sat on when it’s sunny. I used to confuse these words when I was little);
  3. Agenda, (usually boring) things which ought to be done.

As usual, I could go on and on with all this — I haven’t even touched on the cases! — but I will leave it there for now. Happy grammaring!



Wet Wet Wet, or Notes on The Gender of Sea-related Substantives in Latin and Kipling

Digiti are male, ungulae female.

Gender is all around us, and so the Latin goes.

Zephyrus is male, Germania female, ita vero.

With apologies to both The Troggs and poetic decency, I will stop there. I have been wanting to write a post on gender and sexism for a while, but there are plenty of bloggers out there far better equipped to tackle that job than I am. I will content myself with some loose observations on the gender of nouns in Latin and English, and some poetic digressions.

Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer is missing out if they have never turned to the back of the book to find Appendix IV, entitled Memorial Lines on the Gender Of Latin Substantives. For here we find such rhyming gems as ‘The gender of a Latin noun/ by meaning, form, or use is shown’ leading straight on to ‘A Man, a name of People and a Wind,/ River and Mountain, Masculine we find’. This continues for several pages and I can’t tell you how much it pleases me. I urge you to look it up.


In English, we do not really use gendered nouns, unlike many other languages, especially the ones with their roots in Latin. English does of course have roots in Latin, and in German which also has genders for its nouns. Old English, a Germanic language, had both cases and genders which over time and usage became slurred out of action. It is mildly interesting, and puntastic, to point out that there was no future in Old English. But back to the Latin!


Many seafaring words in Latin are either feminine or look feminine. Nauta, a sailor, is one noun that looks feminine but is actually masculine and I offer no further comment on this point and will not mention any songs by The Village People; navis, a ship, is feminine. These words give us nautical, astronaut, navigation, navvy, words which have a traditionally masculine feel in English as men have traditionally been the sailors, navigators, labourers. However, ask any sailor or sea-farer to describe a ship or boat and they will instinctively refer to it as female. There’s also a good chance it will have a girl’s name and many theories abound as to why this should be. I like to think it is because men do inherently respect and trust women and there is not much greater trust than that which a sea-farer puts in their vessel as they set out to meet the old grey Widow-maker, who is in her turn deserving of the utmost respect.

Rudyard Kipling (who was incidentally named after a lake) personified the sea magnificently in his poem Harp Song of the Dane Women, from which I plundered the above phrase, the old grey Widow-maker. The poem opens,

What is a woman that you forsake her,

and the hearth-fire and the home-acre,

to go with the old grey Widow-maker?

It continues,

She has no strong white arms to fold you,

but the ten times fingering weed to hold you—

out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

The outlook is bleak, unforgiving, inexorable, sexy, somehow feminine in its murderousness. Needless to say, Kipling refers to the ship also as feminine throughout.

So in Latin the sailors and the ships are feminine, but the winds are masculine, as Kennedy reminded us above. What of the sea itself, whose ‘feminine’ wiles Kipling represents so unforgivingly? Aqua, water, is a feminine noun and can mean sea, but mare, however, which specifically means the sea, is a neuter noun. This word will be familiar to readers with some knowledge of French as la mer. Neuter nouns in Latin tend to become masculine in French, but la mer has defied this tendency to become feminine. How interesting.

Pelagus, a Latin neuter noun for the sea, is borrowed from Greek, in which language it was also neuter, but it seems to have mutated into modern European languages as la plage, la playa, la praia, all feminine nouns again, but meaning beach rather than sea; pontus is masculine, from which the Hellespont gets its name (now the Dardanelles), the sea in which Helle drowned after she slipped off the back of the magical flying ram of Golden Fleece fame, but this word has become le pont in French, meaning bridge. This is because pontus behaved a little like a Norse kenning in its meaning — a sea way, route, passage, hence bridge — and having lost its maritime feel, it presumably resisted any latent transgender feelings it may have harboured to become feminine in French (and there’s no other reason why it would anyway, of course).

Lest you think my argument for sea related words being feminine in Latin is thus far a little weak, here are a few more, which I have melded into a little Kennedy-inspired rhyme:

Carina, puppis, scapha, prora,

triremis and ancora:

keel, stern, skiff and prow,

a ship and anchor don’t you know?

As a final thought, now completely digressing from my themes, how marvellous also are Kipling’s rhymes (see the full text of Harp Song below in Appendix III), and his use of the word kine, an old plural for cow (compare sow, swine).

Appendix  I

In in case you are desperate to know what I was thinking with my opening lyrics, here is the original opening from Love is All Around by The Troggs, covered by amongst others Wet Wet Wet or Love, Actually, depending on your age:

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes,

love is all around me and so the feeling grows.

It’s written on the wind, it’s everywhere I go, oh yes it is.

Appendix II

Here is a list of vessels registered in Australia (just because it was the first one I found online) which you can use to make your own assessment of the likelihood of ships having female names:

Appendix III

Harp Song of the Dane Women, by Rudyard Kipling

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker ?

Post script: To anyone who has read to the end, thank you for bearing with me! This has been my favourite post to date and I hope at least that some of the rhymes have pleased you as much as they please me. Do share your thoughts in the replies section.