This past weekend I was sitting on a bench in Nashville’s 12 South neighborhood, waiting for my wife and daughter and trying to write this week’s episode of The Habit. As I gazed off into the distance hoping for inspiration, I noticed a couple approaching on the sidewalk. The woman was wearing this shirt:

Maybe it’s obvious to you what this t-shirt means. But it wasn’t obvious to me. I thought I had read it wrong. So I gave the approaching shirt a squint and read it again:

MY PRINCESS NAME IS TEACHING BEAUTY.

Was she an art teacher? I’m all for teaching beauty, though that seemed like an odd way to put it. More to the point, if her job was teaching beauty, why did it say her name was teaching beauty?

On the third (maybe fourth) reading, I finally understood: instead of Sleeping Beauty, this person’s princess name was Teaching Beauty. A smile of recognition played on my lips, and I gave myself a little nod of congratulation for figuring out the mystery. (If you figured it out sooner, feel free to congratulate yourself too).

I say I gave myself a nod. I should mention that I was still facing in the direction of the woman and her t-shirt when I smiled and nodded, and she was only three or four feet away at the time.

The woman’s husband got the wrong idea. What he saw was a man staring at his wife for half a block, then smiling and nodding at her when she got close. He looked exactly like he wanted to fight me.

I am happy to report that there were no fisticuffs, though I’m sure the out-of-town bachelorettes and scooter-riders would have been exhilarated by the sight of two middle-aged men fighting on the sidewalk in front of Reese Witherspoon’s darling little clothing shop. But I hope this little anecdote illustrates the dangers of ambiguous grammar.

The action-packed portion of this letter is now over. I will turn my attention to the grammar technicalities that caused my confusion and almost got me punched in the nose.

Gerunds and Present Participles
In English, a gerund looks exactly like a present participle. Either one is just the -ing form of a verb: swimming, driving, sleeping, teaching, etc. The difference is the function that the -ing word serves in the sentence.

A gerund is a verb that has been turned into a noun. Consider this sentence:

Swimming is my favorite sport.

Here swimming is a gerund serving as the subject of the sentence. (A gerund can do anything a noun can do in a sentence; it can be a subject, a direct object, a predicate nominative, an object of a preposition, etc.)

A participle, on the other hand, is a verb that has been turned into an adjective, as in this sentence:

A swimming dolphin is a beautiful sight.

In this case, swimming modifies dolphin. The form of swimming hasn’t changed from one sentence to the other, but the function is different. If you’re a native speaker of English, you don’t have any trouble knowing what to do with the word swimming in either sentence, whether or not you know the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
In those unusual cases in which we have trouble distinguishing between gerunds and participles, that trouble is often related to the fact that gerunds can take direct objects.

Consider the phrase “hunting panthers.” That could be a gerund phrase describing an activity in which hunters go out and hunt panthers. Or hunting could be a participle telling what the panthers are up to. The context of the sentence would almost certainly make it clear whether the panthers are hunting or being hunted, but you can see how a direct object with a gerund at least creates the possibility of confusion.

Another important distinction to understand here is the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Broadly speaking, a transitive verb is a verb that can take a direct object, and an intransitive verb is a verb that doesn’t take a direct object. (I say “broadly speaking” because there are technicalities and exceptions that I don’t want to get into here).

Hunt is a transitive verb. When you talk about hunting, you usually tell what you’re hunting: Cindy hunts panthers, Charles hunts ducks, etc. Sleep, on the other hand, is intransitive. Under normal circumstances this verb doesn’t take a direct object. You wouldn’t for instance, say I slept a nap this afternoon.

A gerund made from a transitive verb can take a direct object. A gerund made from an intransitive verb cannot.

This distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs helps explain why the phrase “teaching beauty” is potentially ambiguous in a way that the phrase “sleeping beauty” is not. Because teach is transitive, beauty could be a direct object. In that case, “teaching beauty,” would be a gerund phrase describing the act whereby somebody stands up and teaches beauty. That is to say, “teaching beauty” could be parallel to “teaching math” or “teaching preschool.”

On the other hand, since sleeping is intransitive, you know (subconsciously) that beauty can’t be the direct object; sleeping can only be a participle modifying beauty. It is truly remarkable that our minds can make these fine linguistic calculations in real time, but they can. On the other hand, those subconscious calculations occasionally create confusion that we wouldn’t normally consider. To the person who composed the witticism under consideration, it no doubt seemed obvious that “teaching beauty” is a play on “sleeping beauty.” I’m sure it seemed obvious to many of you who are reading this letter. But for whatever reason it wasn’t obvious to me.

Bonus Witticism
While looking for a picture of the “Teaching Beauty” t-shirt, I ran across this one which is A) funnier, and B) grammatically unambiguous.