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Stalking the elusive present participle

Playing with English grammar is fun until you call a word a gerund when it isn’t.

Joshua Lopez, a senior at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, enters the school on the first day back to school, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago.
Joshua Lopez, a senior at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, enters the school on the first day back to school, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Chicago.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When I was in third grade, Mrs. Nemeth handed out a mimeographed worksheet listing phrases that students had to deem either “possible” or “impossible.”

One was “a pig with a bushy tail.” I checked “possible” and she marked it wrong.

This offended me to the bottom of my fussy little 8-year-old soul, and the next day I marched into class with my Giant Golden Book of Biology, and showed Mrs. Nemeth the page about salamander body parts being grafted onto each other. If the leg of a big salamander could be attached to the body of a small salamander, I huffed, was it not possible that a bushy fox’s tail could be grafted onto a pig?

I think she hated me after that.

Correction by students — either rightly or wrongly — is one of the countless challenges of being a teacher.

When I was cobbling together my faux English class for Wednesday’s paper, parsing Lori Lightfoot’s very schoolmarmish “You’re not listening!” (really, our mayor has more snaps than a onesie) and surfing grammar web sites, it did cross my mind that I was out of my depth and should enlist an English teacher to check my work.

But I was fairly confident — always dangerous — so I shrugged and decided, were I wrong, well, somebody would correct me. And besides, wouldn’t being wrong add a layer of verisimilitude to my classroom presentation? A sly dig.

Consequences began rolling in. Here’s Peg Cain, who taught literature for 20 years at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park:

“Are listening,” of course, is a compound verb. “Listening” is, in this case, not a gerund, but the present participle of the verb. ... “Not listening,” therefore, cannot be a predicate nominative because “listening” is not a noun in this sentence. “Not” is merely an adverb, hanging around ...

So not a gerund but ... a present participle?

Jeanne Parker, who was teaching English at Palatine Township High School before I was born, joined in:

In the sentence “You’re not listening,” listening is indeed a verb; you’re the contraction, does indeed contain the subject you as well as the verb are, which is NOT, however, the main verb but rather an auxiliary verb, making are listening the main verb phrase, NOT a predicate nominative.

So ... a main verb phrase?

From Jon Teich:

The subject would be “YOU”; the verb would be a present progressive tense “ARE LISTENING” modified by the adverb “NOT,”... There would be no predicate nominative in this case. To treat “NOT LISTENING” as a predicate nominative would mean “YOU” = “NOT LISTENING”, which may have been your intention.

So ... the present progressive?

There were more. But you get the idea. Fielding emails from English teachers all day might not sound like fun, but actually it was.

Why? The teachers were — with one exception — extraordinarily nice, with none of the “Hey idiot!” glee that mistakes often evoke. Many confessed to liking the column, this blunder notwithstanding.

One accused me of making the mistake deliberately, and I had to wonder whether, on some subconscious level, I might have been lax to provoke reaction. It gets so quiet. People can read for years, and never utter a word unless I screw up. That draws them out.

At a time when certainties crumble, democracy teeters and pandemic rages, it is comforting to realize that an obscure point of grammar is still important to many. Then again, that’s what teachers do. They sweat the details — dates of battles, mathematical formulae, grammatical fine points — and explain them, or try to, to careless chuckleheads such as me.

The feedback made me think of all the English teachers I’ve been lucky enough to know: Mr. Garman and Bonnie Brown, Miss Jones and Miss Kovach, who spent one class in 1973 reading “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” aloud, perhaps the highlight of my educational experience.

Oh, I did finally get off my duff and find out exactly what “listening” is in the sentence “You’re not listening,” doing what I should have done at the start: turning to a knowledgable authority, Carol Saller, contributing editor to “The Chicago Manual of Style,” author of “The Subversive Copy Editor.” My first respondent, Peg Cain, was right.

Saller explained:

“Listening” is a present participle in the present progressive tense (“are listening”). To be a gerund, “listening” would have to function as a noun (“listening is fun” or “hearing is not listening”). Here it’s just part of a verb.

The Sun-Times regrets the error.