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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Where oh where has my little -ing gone?

I've been noticing for a while now that verbal nouns (also called gerunds), that is, nouns with an -ing ending formed from verbs, as in "I love swimming", "Spending is out of control", and so on, have been losing their -ing when used as modifiers before another noun.

Here are some examples I've come across where formerly the -ing form would have been normal:

Wait list
This is possibly the oldest example of this phenomenon, dating back to 1960, according to the OED. It is still vastly outnumbered by "waiting list" according to Google Books ngrams(click on this link to see the chart). But I think many of us would feel it rather old-fashioned to ask to be put on a "waiting list" rather than a "wait list" (or even a "waitlist", the fact that many of us write it as a fused compound now showing how very well established it is).

Bake time
Swim class
Spend categories
This one is on my credit card bill, and tells me just how much money I am spending on ballet tickets, as opposed to, say, food.
Quit strategies.
I have seen this on public health advertisements encouraging people to stop smoking. Look for it in early January!
Start gun 

The images above are, I think, quite telling. Only five years ago, Torontonians were being invited to the mayor's 2015 "skating party", but  by 2017 this had suddenly become (and for 2020 still is) a "skate party".

This seems to happen on a word-by-word basis, as I don't think anyone is talking about "sing lessons", for instance, even though "sing" does exist as a noun: "Come to our annual carol sing!" I haven't come across "shop list" or "shop bag" either.

Have you noticed this phenomenon? What examples have you found? In the examples above, where would you use the -ing-less version and where only the -ing-ful version?

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  1. The one that stands out in my mind is "spell check" when what is really meant is "spelling checker."

  2. Now that you mention it, I recognize what you're talking about! I see this too. I wish I could think of an example. When I first started watching the Great British Bake-Off, I was struck by their use of "bake" as a noun. I don't think it's normal American English, but soon it will be, no doubt!

    1. Both bake-off and the slightly earlier cook-off (both from the 1930s and 40s are originally US. I don't watch they British Bake-Off show; how else do they use "bake" as a noun? I am aware of "tray bake", a cake or other confection baked in a (usually square or rectangular) tray and then cut into individual pieces, which seems to be mostly Brit. We would (or at least I would) likely call those "squares".

  3. They're always referring to someone's "bake": not a good bake, etc.

    1. that's interesting. Not a situation where a gerund would have been used traditionally. I suspect it's more in-group parlance in that case.

  4. I don't watch the Great British Bake-Off, either, but I would definitely say that the pie we had the other night was not good baking. Such a statement carries judgement, because it indicates that the person who made the pie took perfectly good ingredients and turned them into a sub-standard article or (it gets worse) chose poor ingredients to make something for others to eat.

  5. Gerunds are interesting. I'm fond of using them & certainly did so in my graduate school writings. Some of my professors, however, were not fond of them & sometimes asserted that there are no legitimate nouns formed from verbs with -ing at the end, at least not in the context of scholarly writing. This would at times lead to a debate, with me insisting that gerunds are perfectly acceptable. Some of the professors were not even familiar with the term, gerund. I imagine those skeptical professors would have torn at their hair at the idea writings utilizing gerunds with the -ing removed, no less. "Zounds!" they might exclaim.

    1. No legitimate nouns formed from verbs with -ing at the end? Where do people get these wacko ideas?


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.