No wonder grammar and usage befuddles both teachers and students. Just when students think they finally have mastered the definitions and identifications of the basic parts of speech, their teacher (perhaps you) tells them, “Now that you think you get it… there’s a bit more…”

Students cringe when teachers tell them that some parts of speech can serve as other parts of speech. Wait until you tell them that prepositional phrases can also act as adverbial phrases e.g., I waited down at the station. I tell them it’s like dressing up in costumes at Halloween.

But let’s narrow things down to one part of speech: the verb. When is a verb not really a verb?

The verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) are notorious masqueraders.


Although “_ing words” look like verbs (actually present participles), as in running, they can also serve as nouns. Example: Running is a great form of cardiovascular exercise.

Of course gerunds can function as parts of noun phrases. Example: Running around the track is a great form of cardiovascular exercise.


Present participles (“_ing words”) and past participles (“_d,” “_ed,” “_en,” and “_t” words) can serve as verbs, but also do double-duty as adjectives. Examples: Stunning, the beauty queen turned every head. Surprised, the judges found her talented and accomplished as well.

Check out these adjective phrases using participles. Examples: The whirring blades of the helicopter began to slow. Defeated by the green army, the blue army retreated beyond the river.


Infinitives are the base forms (unconjugated) of the verb. They are often preceded by “to” as in “to run.” Infinitives can stand on their own or as parts of phrases. They can masquerade as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Noun Examples: To love is to truly live. “To love” serves as a thing and the subject of the sentence. To live sacrificially remains my goal. “To live sacrificially” is a noun phrase and the complete subject of the sentence.

Adjective Examples: Their goal to win was ambitious. The infinitive “to win” modifies the noun “goal.” James was the first to ask about her. The infinitive “to ask about her” modifies the predicate adjective “first.”

Adverb Examples: To help my father lent him the start-up money.  “To help” modifies the verb “lent.” To see the joy on her face, her father gave her the portrait. “To see the joy on her face” modifies the verb “gave.”

Verbals can serve many different functions in sentences:


Example: Skiing is a challenging sport.


Example: She misses racing her boat.


Example: Their grandparents get more than they give from babysitting.


Example: The athlete, beaten and bruised, vowed to try again.

Warning: Students experimenting with the use of verbals frequently write fragments. Stress the fact that the three criteria of a complete sentence still apply when using verbals:

1. Is there a subject (the “doer”) and the predicate (the action or state of being)? To teach subjects and predicates, check out this helpful Subjects and Predicates article:

2. Does the “sentence” state a complete thought? To teach recognition of sentence fragments, check out this article on Sentence Fragments. To teach recognition of run-on sentences, check out Run-on Sentences.

3. When reading the “sentence” out loud, does the voice drop down at the end of a declarative, imperative, or exclamatory or go up for an interrogative? This last one connects with students’ oral language abilities and is especially powerful for your grammatically-challenged kids. Of course, students can force their voices down or up and inaccurately apply this strategy, so encourage natural reading-the out loud part is crucial.


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