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Subtle Impact of Using Gerunds in Headers

I’m a language hacker. Minor changes in wording can shift things around considerably, and I’m always on the lookout for how such shifts can alter the mood, cognitive elasticity, etc. One I’ve rediscovered while working on documents at my new day job is the impact of using a gerund versus using a base verb form in a section title.

Quick & dirty explanation: gerunds are where you add “-ing” to a verb, turning it into an object. With the base verb “create,” the gerund is “creating.”

One of the many things I do with copyediting a manuscript is check the consistency of using/not using gerunds in titles, because they have different impacts on reading!

Using base verbs: “Create Your Character” as a header is an imperative. It’s making a demand of the reader. It could be a friendly demand, but it’s still a demand. Use the base form when you’re indicating steps and procedural order, or want to lend that sort of immediacy or declarative strength to the following paragraph.

Using gerunds: “Creating Your Character” as a header is suggestive. Unlike the base form’s “Hey you, do this” implied attitude, using the gerund is saying “Hey, when you’re ready, come see me.” It’s softer and not rooted in a sense of immediacy.

They both have uses, providing you’re not mixing them willy-nilly. You might have a header like “Handling Combat,” and underneath that some steps like “Roll to Hit” and “Apply Damage.”

It’s subtle language hacking. If you know what you’re doing with gerunds vs. base verbs in headers, you’re one step closer to getting your audience to read you in the right frame of mind.

(Fun bit: I used a gerund in this title because I want to inform a perspective and get people to think, not declare or even propose action.)

– Ryan

Update: A reader emailed me to point out I’m misusing “gerund.” Gerunds are specifically about making a verb into a noun by adding -ing, and what I’m talking about is still a verb, making it the present participle. S’what I get for not double-checking knowledge held in my head from long ago, though the content of the post stands.

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2 Responses to Subtle Impact of Using Gerunds in Headers

  1. Wayne Zombie says:

    Thanks for this! I’m working on user documentation for a new database that I’m developing, this could be quite useful.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Funnily enough, it was while revising some docs at my tech writing day job that caused me to think about this.

      – Ryan