My friend Rachel got a smoking gun for Christmas. By “smoking gun,” I don’t mean she received a piece of incriminating evidence. Rather, she received a kitchen device for shooting smoke at food or drink in order to imbue it with a smoky flavor. It is a gun used for the purpose of smoking rather than a gun that happens to be smoking.

In written form, these two uses of smoking gun are indistinguishable. In spoken English, there is a slight difference in stressed and unstressed vowels. The accent marks below indicate the stressed vowels:

  • smóking gun (the kitchen implement)
  • smóking gún (the metaphor for irrefutable evidence)

If you don’t know what I mean by stressed and unstressed vowels, this nineteen-second video might help you hear the difference.

From a grammatical perspective, what is the difference between these two kinds of smoking guns? I’m glad you asked.

Content Warning: Things are about to get very technical and grammar-y.

Our two varieties of smoking gun serve to remind us how many different tasks have been assigned to the second principal part of English verbs. Suffice it to say that the second principal part is the –ing form of a verb: swimming, eating, smoking, barking, etc. If my public demands it, I am prepared to devote a whole Tuesday letter to the four principal parts of verbs. (I would be amazed if my public even makes it to the end of this letter, much less clamors for more principal parts.)

The second principal part is used to form various progressive verb tensesI am swimming. She was swimming. They will be swimming. You should be swimming. Those –ing verbs signify ongoing action that is not complete or was not complete at a specified time in the past or will not be complete at a specified time in the future, depending on the auxiliary verb(s) that goes with it.

gerund is a second principal part used as a noun. Consider the sentence “Smoking is bad for you.” Smoking, the second principal part of the verb to smoke, is used as a noun, the subject of the sentence. In fact, a gerund can perform any any grammatical function that a regular noun can perform within a sentence. Watch as the gerund wrestling performs different tasks in different sentences that mean roughly the same thing:

  • Wrestling is my favorite sport. (subject)
  • I like wrestling. (direct object)
  • I give wrestling two thumbs up. (indirect object)
  • My favorite sport is wrestling. (predicate nominative)
  • I’m a big fan of wrestling. (object of preposition)

gerund phrase consists of a gerund and its modifiers and direct and indirect objects. A gerund phrase, like a simple gerund, can fit into any grammatical slot that a noun can:

  • Chewing gum is a nasty habit. (gerund chewing + direct object gum)
  • I love wrestling alligators in my above-ground pool. (gerund wrestling + direct object alligators + adverbial prepositional phrase in my above-ground pool)

Another major use of the second principal part is the present participle. A participle is a verb form used as an adjective. To say it another way, a participle modifies a noun. A past participle is made from the fourth principal part of a verb—baked potato, spoken word, etc. Past participles are not our concern here. For now, we’re interested in present participles, which look exactly like gerunds: leaping trout, barking dogs, whirling dervishes.

I find it helpful to think of present participles as a streamlining of progressive verb forms. So instead of

  • The dog was barking. It chased the mail carrier.

You can say

  • The barking dog chased the mail carrier.

Because gerunds look exactly like present participles, there is a possibility of confusion in certain situations. But in practice, I think the more surprising thing is how rarely we confuse these two forms that look alike but perform very different functions. Consider these two sentences, which are almost exactly alike:

  1. Hunting wolves are dangerous.
  2. Hunting wolves is dangerous.

Put side-by-side like this, these sentences could possibly be a little disorienting. But if you only heard one or the other, you wouldn’t be confused at all. You know that Sentence 1 comments on wolves while they are hunting. Those guys are dangerous! Sentence 2 comments on the dangers that wolf-hunters face.

Also, if you were to express either of these two ideas, you wouldn’t have to spend one second wondering whether the verb should be is or are. You know without thinking about it that the subject of Sentence 1 is the plural noun wolves, which takes the plural verb are. The subject of Sentence 2 is the gerund hunting (or, you could say, the gerund phrase hunting wolves), which takes the singular verb is, even though the plural noun wolves is closer to the verb. If you are a long-time speaker of English, you know these things as second nature, even if you don’t know the grammatical terms gerund and participle.

Ok. Clear enough? Now it might get a tad confusing. Because there’s another use of the second principal part that I had never given any thought to before Rachel told me about her smoking gun.

Consider these two phrases:

  1. swimming duck
  2. swimming trunks

In Phrase 1, swimming is clearly a present participle. We have a duck, and she’s swimming. But what about Phrase 2? What function does swimming serve there? Until recently I would have said very confidently it was a present participle. Obviously it modifies trunks. It tells us what kind of trunks we’re talking about. But if it’s a participle, it’s a different kind of participle than the in the phrase swimming duck. This isn’t a case of trunks that are swimming.

Now consider these two sentences, each of which contains the phrase chewing gum:

  1. Chewing gum is a nasty habit.
  2. This chewing gum is delicious.

In Sentence 1, chewing gum is clearly a gerund phrase serving as the subject of the sentence. But Sentence 2? Again, until recently I would have confidently said that chewing was a participle modifying gum. But this gum isn’t chewing anything. Chewing(2) serves the exact same function as swimming(2) above (in swimming trunks).

That brings us back to smoking gun. In the traditional metaphor/cliché smoking gunsmoking is clearly a participle. There’s a gun, and it’s smoking, and before you know it, it’s a cliché. But in the case of the kitchen implement called a smoking gun, what does the word smoking do? Well, it’s true that Rachel’s smoking gun smokes in a way that chewing gun doesn’t chew. Nevertheless, the point seems to be that the gun is exists for the purpose of smoking. Chewing gum is made for chewing. Swimming trunks are used for swimming.

Have another look at those descriptions again:

  • for the purpose of smoking
  • made for chewing
  • used for swimming

Each of those -ing forms is the object of a preposition. And only a noun or noun equivalent (such as a gerund) can be the object of a preposition.

What I am suggesting is that perhaps the “participles” in swimming trunks, chewing gum(2), and smoking gun (the kitchen implement) are actually gerunds. They serve as the direct objects of implied prepositional phrases. Or something.

At the beginning of this letter I remarked on the difference in stress patterns when one pronounces the two kinds of smoking gun. That seems to be a clue. There’s one stress pattern for “a thing that is intended for ——ing,” and another stress pattern for “a thing that is ——ing,” as you can hear in this list of pairs:

  • swimming trunks — swimming duck
  • changing room — changing times
  • grappling hook — grappling boys
  • running shoes — running deer

It is relatively easy to find pairs like the ones above, in which the same -ing word is used to signify “intended for ——ing” with one noun and “a thing that is ——ing” for another noun. I have found it much harder to identify pairs in which both the -ing word and the noun are the same. In fact, I have only been able to identify two:

  • smoking gun (the kitchen implement) — smoking gun (the cliché)
  • racing bikes (bikes built for racing) — racing bikes (bikes that are racing)

Can you think of other pairs to add to the list? Put them in the comments. 

Note: It doesn’t count if half of your pair is a gerund phrase, such as chewing gum (gum for chewing)/chewing gum (the habit/activity) or hunting boots (boots for hunting)/ hunting boots (the search for footwear).

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