The gerund

A slang expression in the 19th century for a pedantic schoolmaster used to be a gerund-grinder, and learning Latin grammar was grinding the gerund stone.

Sydney Smith says (Edinburgh Review, 1826): ‘The boy who is lexicon-struck in early youth, looks upon all books afterwards with horror, and goes over to the blockheads… he is driven to absolute despair by gerunds, and wishes himself dead!’

Other references suggest the gerund is the most baffling part of learning Latin, unsurprisingly if one looks at the grammar books used at places like Eton or Westminster at the start of the 19th century. It was to remedy this that luminaries like Benjamin Hall Kennedy, M.A.North, A.E.Hillard and others set about making things more intelligible. Now, we accept that even their books are for a minority of pupils, as indeed is the learning of inflected languages, including Russian.

A look at the gerund in modern grammar books reveals a medley of approaches. It seems to defy a clear explanation, and perhaps in the end it is assimilated by having a mental stock of examples, like the two sections in de bello Gallico just before the battle with the Nervii, where gerund and gerundive are used to give a quick, almost frenetic pace:

Caesari omnia uno tempore erant agenda: vexillum proponendum, quod erat insigne, cum ad arma concurri oporteret; signum tuba dandum; ab opere revocandi milites; qui paulo longius aggeris petendi causa processerant arcessendi; acies instruenda; milites cohortandi; signum dandum.

temporis tanta fuit exiguitas hostiumque tam paratus ad dimicandum animus ut non modo ad insignia accommodanda sed etiam ad galeas induendas scutisque tegimenta detrahenda tempus defuerit. quam quisque ab opere in partem casu devenit quaeque prima signa conspexit, ad haec constitit, ne in quaerendis suis pugnandi tempus dimitteret.

One colleague identified three grammatical elements that make Latin seemingly difficult, because they differ from English structure:

  • Participles
  • Indirect statement
  • Gerund and gerundive.

These three, he maintained, constitute the ‘difficult’ syntax in Latin.

See the Grammar menu for a simple attempt to explain the gerund.

Next post: more about grammar.

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