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A verbal noun is a noun formed from or otherwise corresponding to a verb. Different languages have different types of verbal nouns and different ways of forming and using them. An example of a verbal noun in English is the word singing in the sentence "Singing is fun" (this is a noun formed from the verb sing). Verbal nouns may be non-finite verb forms such as infinitives or gerunds in English (or Latin) usage. They may also be "pure" verbal nouns, formed from verbs, but behaving grammatically entirely like nouns rather than verbs (not taking direct objects, for example). Such cases may also be called deverbal nouns.
Verbal nouns may be non-finite verb forms which follow verb syntax, for example by taking appropriate objects (though usually not a subject) and being modified by adverbs, to produce a verb phrase which is then used within a larger sentence as a noun phrase. In English this can be done with the to-infinitive and with the gerund. In the following examples with infinitives, the verb phrase serving as a noun phrase is underlined, and the to-infinitive itself is bolded:
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
- Jan likes to go fishing on Sundays.
- His greatest desire was to serve his country.
In the first sentence the verbal noun phrases play the role of subjects, and in the remaining examples they are verb objects or complements. There are restrictions on the grammatical contexts in which this type of noun phrase can be used, and infinitives also have other uses in which they would not be regarded as nouns. For details see infinitive.
The following examples use gerunds (the gerund itself is bolded, the verb phrase serving as a noun phrase is underlined):
- Speaking is not always wise.
- We enjoy playing football.
Again there are grammatical restrictions on the occurrence of such phrases. In English the -ing form that serves as the gerund also serves as a present participle, which is used adjectivally or adverbally rather than as a noun. For details see gerund and participle.
Other types of verbal nouns, however, while being derived from verbs, behave grammatically entirely as nouns, not as verbs. For example, they do not take direct objects as verbs can, and they are modified by adjectives rather than adverbs. They may also be used as count nouns and pluralized. Some authors call these deverbal nouns rather than verbal nouns. In English such nouns can be formed from verbs with the suffix -ing, that is, they take the same form as the gerund. Examples of such uses are given below:
- The killing of the president was an atrocious crime.
- Most verses of the psalm have multiple readings.
Note the difference between the gerund use killing the president (in which the verb takes a direct object), and the pure verbal noun use the killing of the president, in which there is no direct object, and the undergoer (president) of the action is expressed using a prepositional phrase with the preposition of.
Nouns may also be formed from verbs in other ways, such as by adding different suffixes, as in discovery from the verb discover, or by simple conversion, as with the noun love from the verb love. These are not generally productive processes, that is, they cannot be applied to form nouns from any arbitrary verb (for example, there is no noun *uncovery for the verb uncover). A similar phenomenon is found in many other languages. Such nouns may or may not be referred to as verbal nouns. When they exist, they often tend to replace the regularly formed verbal noun (as discovery is usually used rather than discovering, although the latter is still common as a gerund), or else a differentiation in meaning becomes established.
Other languages may have other specific types of verbal noun. One such type found in Latin is the supine, which corresponds to certain uses of the English to-infinitive. The term supine is also used in various ways in descriptions of other languages; the English to-infinitive is sometimes referred to as the supine.
Specification of the agent
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Being non-finite verb forms, verbal nouns do not usually have subjects, and thus the performer of the denoted action (the agent) is often not specified. However it is generally possible to specify the agent if desired, using methods which depend on the type of verbal noun and the grammar of the language in question.
In English the following methods are available for expressing the agent with various types of verbal noun:
- A to-infinitive may be preceded by a prepositional phrase introduced by for, referring to the agent, as in It would be nice for the flowers to stand here. (This is not possible in all grammatical contexts; for example, one can say I want to run, but not *I want for him to run; here the required syntax is I want him to run.)
- With a gerund, the agent may be expressed using a possessive adjective: my arriving; John's entering the competition. In colloquial English it is common to use a simple noun or pronoun instead, but this is sometimes considered ungrammatical; see fused participle.
- With a pure verbal noun, the agent may be expressed by a prepositional phrase with by (as is also done in the case of the passive voice), or by a possessive. For example, one can say the killing of the president by Oswald, or Oswald's killing of the president. In fact both agent and patient (object) can alternatively be expressed with possessives and with of phrases, although the possessive is more common for the agent, and of for the patient (if both are used, as in the last example, then the possessive unambiguously denotes the agent).
- Teun Hoekstra, Arguments and Structure: Studies on the Architecture of the Sentence, Walter de Gruyter, 2004, p. 268.