Know Your Verbals


What’s a verbal you may ask? Well, a verbal is a verb that’s not really a verb. I know this all sounds counterintuitive, but stick with me for a moment–it’ll all make sense soon. Verbals can be nouns, adjectives, or even adverbs. So how can a verb be words that aren’t verbs?

It’s easy. Verbals are actually much simpler than you think. There are three types: gerunds, participles, and infinitives. Let’s go through them all one at a time.

Gerunds = Nouns

A gerund is a verb disguised as a noun, often the subject of the sentence. Because of this, you’ll usually find gerunds in the beginning of a sentence. Let’s look a few examples.

Running on the pavement hurts my back.

In the above sentence, running is the gerund: it’s used as the subject of the sentence and is performing the action hurts. Here’s a quick trick: if you spot an -ing word toward the beginning of a sentence, it’s most likely a gerund. And if the -ing word is the subject of a sentence, it’s definitely a gerund.

Participles = Adjectives

A participle is a verb pretending that it’s an adjective. You can find these right before the noun it’s modifying, or you can find it in a phrase. Here are some examples.

The crossing guard blocked the bustling street.

There are two participles in this example: crossing and bustling, both of which are describing nouns in greater detail. This, therefore, makes them adjectives. Let’s look at a more complex example next.

Crossing the street, the guard held up his hands to signal cars to stop.

See the participle? The part that’s bold is called a participial phrase, and it serves the same purpose as a regular participle, only it’s a phrase here. The phrase crossing the street is indeed used as an adjective, so what’s it describing in greater detail? Ask yourself who’s crossing the street, and the answer becomes clear. The guard is crossing the street.

Infinitives = Adverbs or Adjectives or Nouns

This one’s trickier than the rest, so let’s define what an infinitive is first: the base form of a verb that always has the word “to” in front of it. For example, to run, to swim, and to walk are all infinitives. Let’s look at an infinitive disguised as a noun first.

To walk on lava would be extremely painful.

In this sentence to walk is the subject and it’s connected to the linking verb would be. So here it’s a noun. If it’s at the beginning of the sentence, it’s probably a noun. Easy, right? Well, it gets harder if an infinitive is undercover as an adjective or adverb. Let’s take a look at those two.

Her book to read for AP Literature is Ulysses.

To read acts as an adjective here. It’s giving more information about the noun book, so this makes it an adjective. Check to see what type of word the infinitive comes after. If it’s a noun, like book, you’ve probably got yourself an infinitive disguised as an adjective. Now onto adverbial infinitives.

He needed a perfect score on the final to pass the class

To pass modifies the verb needed in this sentence. It answers the question why? Why did he need a perfect score? To pass. Here’s a quick and easy trick: if you can put the phrase in order to in front of the infinitive, then it’s an adverb.

For more grammar tips and tricks, check out our handy punctuation guide