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Nominalisation of phrasal verbs in the -ing forms with a plural marker (goings-on, coming outs): a study of nominal characteristics

Marie Turlais


This article studies the formation and meaning of deverbal phrasal nouns such as goings-on or coming outs in relation to the prototypical characteristics of the nominal category. I will study the morphological, syntactic and semantic aspects of pluralised -ing nominalisations of phrasal verbs to show that this derivation process creates prototypical nouns. These constructions bear some resemblance to compound nouns, and are sometimes treated as such in the literature, but they are actually unprototypical compounds at best. Finally, two types of variation can be observed in the data: the location of the plural marker -s, which can fall either on the lexical base or on the right-hand particle, suggests two possible interpretations of the whole constituent, while the existence of competing nominalisations that do not feature the -ing suffix (a weighing-in // a weigh-in) indicates that the suffix triggers eventive readings of the nouns.

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1Lexical categories in English are commonly defined by combinations of morphological, syntactic, semantic, distributional and/or phonological criteria which allow speakers and linguists to identify the part of speech of lexical units, and to play with or distort these categories in specific utterances, leading to a gradience from prototypical to marginal examples of each class (Taylor [1998], Denison [2001], Aarts [2007], among others). Focusing on the nominal domain as both a source and a target category, numerous examples of distortion and conversion may be found between lexical classes (Someone fun, denominal adjective; The wounded, deadjectival noun; I Instagrammed it, denominal verb; This was my undoing, deverbal noun; they know the ins and outs of this place, deadverbial nouns), and even between nouns and morphemes or phrases (The -isms and -ologies, nouns created from affixes; We murmured our how-do-you-dos, a clause becomes the head noun of the noun phrase).

2These comings and goings between nouns and other parts of speech have led linguists to consider, first, that lexical items may belong to the nominal category even though they display characteristics that are not prototypical of nouns (such as the absence of plural marking for deadjectival nouns referring to groups of people, or the absence of a head noun in clauses that are still considered heads of noun phrases); and second, that some items may pertain to two lexical categories at the same time (which, according to Denison [2001] is the case of fun and key, which have various uses ranking from prototypical nouns to prototypical adjectives in contemporary English). Aarts [2007] calls subsective gradience the scale of prototypicality within a given linguistic category, and intersective gradience the in-between nature of the lexical items which hover between different categories.

3This paper provides new data to study subsective gradience within the nominal category, and focuses on some nominal features, in particular, morphology and type of referent, to address the degree of nominal prototypicality of one particular construction: nouns created by derivation from phrasal verbs, using the -ing suffix, and which bear a plural marker, as illustrated in the following underlined examples, extracted from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; Davies [2008–]):

(1) a couple of Olympic athletes actually got misdirected to their weighing-ins and so didn’t qualify.

(2) [John] is subjected to ever more bizarre dressings-down from [his parents].

(3) if you can call this coming out, it is one of the weirder coming outs in the history of the genre.

(4) This video might be of particular interest for those who entered Christianity as teens (as I did) or as adults and who are struggling to understand the distinct differences between our religious experiences and comings out.

4In total, the analysed data amounts to 50 types of lexical base-ing (+ hyphen) + particle combinations, which correspond to 836 occurrences. 40 different phrasal verbs, as lexeme forms, are found as deverbal bases.

  • 1 This paper is based on a quite restricted number of occurrences, which raises questions regarding t (...)

5It must be noted that this is a very marginal linguistic phenomenon, yielding less than a thousand occurrences in the COCA1. However, it is still an existing word-formation process that gives us information about the way complex lexical units behave, and in particular in the way phrasal verbs are nominalised in contemporary English.

  • 2 The very nature of the units dressings-down and coming outs is subject to debate, but since they ar (...)

6As can be observed in the examples above, the underlined elements display variations in their structure as nominalised forms. First, the plural marker -s can appear either on the lexical base ((2), (4)) or on the following particle2 ((1), (3)). Second, the nominal units studied in these examples all include the suffix -ing on the lexical base, but other patterns of nominalisations which do not include this suffix may be found with a similar meaning: for instance, a weigh-in and a weighing-in are synonymous (“an act or instance of weighing in as a contestant especially in sport”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary); in other cases, a competing nominalisation without the -ing suffix bears a different meaning (carrying-on means “foolish, excited, or improper behavior” while carry-on is defined as “a piece of luggage suitable for being carried aboard an airplane by a passenger” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary); some phrasal verbs, finally, are only nominalised with the -ing suffix, and the bare form of conversion does not exist, as is the case for dressing-down, which cannot be found as a bare-form nominalisation (*a dress-down). The last kind of variation that can be highlighted is the presence ((1), (2)) or absence ((3), (4)) of a hyphen between the lexical base and the particle, which may not be relevant in itself to know whether these terms are prototypical nouns, since orthographic conventions may diverge between varieties of English, types of discourse and between speakers, but which raises the question of composition for the resulting forms.

7The data under study are linguistic forms that have been created using a process of transfer between parts of speech. They are nouns that have been obtained by way of derivation from verb forms. However, are they prototypical nouns ? And what can be said about their variety in form in relation to their lexical category?

8To establish whether these constructions become fully prototypical nouns, I will first study their morphosyntactic characteristics in comparison to those usually displayed by members of the nominal class. Due to the fact that each of these nouns is made of two lexical units, the question of subsective gradience in the nominal category includes addressing their status as potential compound nouns. Finally, the variations these terms display, especially regarding the location of the plural marker and the competing -ing vs. bare nominalisation, beg the question of motivation in form: I will show that such variations in form encourage us to understand the process of nominalisation, and thus the linguistic object called “nouns”, in different lights.

1. Prototypical nouns

  • 3 A Wikipedia page is dedicated to “English phrasal nouns” and lists 476 nouns derived from phrasal v (...)

9Bare conversions between phrasal verbs and nouns (a breakthrough, a write-off) are a well-documented word formation process in the literature (Bauer & Huddleston [2002: 1654-1656]; Quirk et al. [1985: 1538]); the result of the conversion is sometimes called a “phrasal noun” (Sørensen [1986: 272-283])3, a term that I have adopted in this paper. There are however very few works dedicated to phrasal nouns in the -ing form. Does it follow that terms resulting from the nominalisation of phrasal verbs in the -ing form are not (prototypical) nouns?

10To address this question, I will compare the characteristics of prototypical nouns to those of the studied data. These characteristics include: the syntax of nouns in a noun phrase, the ability to denote a plural referent and to take a plural marker, and the -ing suffix as a prototypical nominal morpheme.

1.1. Syntax: head of noun phrases

11In terms of syntax, prototypical nouns have one main function: they work as head of noun phrases. It follows that they take determiners and adjectives as internal dependents (a new revelation, their heated row); they can also be the head of a phrase that functions as the complement of a preposition (They were talking about this revelation, that was the subject of the row).

12All the studied data display the syntax of prototypical nouns. They can have determiners and adjectives as internal dependents:

(5) Is this, too, what Keats heard, in tune with Wordsworth, in those “whisperings around” at seaside?

(6) [He] is subjected to Ø ever more bizarre dressings-down from them.

Example (5) includes the deictic determiner those before the head noun whispering arounds; example (6) includes the zero article as well as the adjective phrase ever mode bizarre as internal dependents of the head noun dressings down.

13The terms under scrutiny can also appear as head nouns in noun phrases that complement prepositions, as illustrated in the following examples:

(7) a couple of Olympic athletes actually got misdirected to their weighing-ins and so didn’t qualify.

(8) From my talks with him I soon realized that he knew more about the goings-on and goings-off of Broadway than anyone I had ever met.

14In terms of the syntax of noun phrases, then, the studied data are prototypical nouns.

1.2. Plural marking

1.2.1. Pluralisation of count nouns

15The presence of the plural marker -s is the strongest argument in favour of the analysis of our data as nouns. This characteristic is among the defining properties of prototypical nouns given by Payne & Huddleston [2002: 326]: “[n]ouns prototypically inflect for number (singular vs plural)”; Quirk et al. [1985: 304] consider that the plural marking concerns a majority of nouns:

Variable nouns have two forms: singular and plural. The singular is the unmarked form that is listed in dictionaries. The vast majority of nouns are variable in this way and normally the plural is fully predictable both in pronunciation and spelling.

All the terms studied in this paper present a grammatical suffix -s at the end of one of the constituents, used to denote a notion of plurality, repetition or multiplicity of something.

16The ability for a noun to mark variability in number means that it is used as a “count noun” (Payne & Huddleston [2002: 328]; Quirk et al. [1985: 245]). The use of a count noun means that it is possible and relevant to visualize boundaries for its referent (Mignot [2018: 65]), whether physical, temporal or conceptual limits, which allow the speaker to distinguish this entity from others of the same kind and from the rest of the world. When the speaker envisages the bounds of the referent, it becomes relevant to ask the question of number: one entity is distinguished from another, and it is therefore possible to count two entities. Variable nouns therefore denote bound entities that can be identified as separate individuals, and thus grouped with other similar individuals under a common noun in the plural form. Conversely, non-count nouns tend to focus the speakers’ attention on the type or kind of entity denoted by the referent, while its quantification or bounds are deemed less relevant (Mignot [2018: 97]). For that reason, non-count nouns are not variable, they do not show alternation between a singular and a plural form.

  • 4 Other parts of speech, and indeed all linguistic signs, also have the ability to categorize, to dis (...)

17The most prototypical nouns in traditional descriptions are the variable count nouns, as they denote things that can be clearly separated, distinguished from the rest of the world because they have limits. Other, less prototypical nouns (such as non-count and collective nouns) also share the ability to distinguish between parts of the world: as a part of speech, a noun creates a separate category of things4. Langacker [1991: 18], among others, has shown that the main point of the nominal category is to categorise, to create “regions” that are identified against a general “domain” (the rest of the world) by virtue of having become salient enough for the speaker to delimit or distinguish it.

18In the studied data, out of the 50 different combinations, 23 have been found to have an alternate singular form (with identical lexical meaning) in the COCA. It is possible that the scarcity of data in the source corpus limits the availability of singular forms, and a more extensive study of singular and plural deverbal phrasal nouns in another corpus could give further results regarding the existence of alternate forms. Moreover, some phrasal nouns are known to only exist in the plural form: it is the case for goings-on / going-ons, which cannot be treated as a prototypical noun in respect of number, because it does not have both a singular and a plural form. The 23 combinations for which a singular form, however, can be found in the corpus, however, can be considered prototypical nouns in terms of variability. They are the following:

(9) weighing-ins, sendings-off, sending offs, taking offs, trading-offs, carryings-on, carryings on, pilings-on, actings-out, acting-outs, airings-out, comings out, coming outs, crossings out, crossings-out, fallings out, fallings-out, workings out, workings-out, hanging outs, crossing overs, coverings-up, openings-up, summings up, rising-ups, cleaning-ups.

19In comparison, another type of phrasal verb nominalisations in the -ing form can only be found in the singular: the “verbal nouns” identified by Bauer & Huddleston [2002: 1654] in the following examples: the bringing in of the furniture, the taking away of the rubble, the closing down of the store. In these phrases, the underlined constituents cannot be used in the plural form. They can express bounded entities (temporal boundaries are found in the bringing in of furniture took an hour, for instance), yet they are non-count nouns, for which the identification of limits or quantity is less important than the identification of quality, of the kind of event taking place.

1.2.2. Meanings of plurality in the studied combinations

20All the studied combinations do not have the same ability to refer to a plurality of things. Some of them clearly refer to several occurrences of a single action or event: this is the case for takings off, as illustrated by the following example:

(10) nobody can actually keep track of what’s going on with all these landings and taking offs happening at the same time at airports.

In this example, the plural marker denotes a multiplicity of events taking place concurrently.

21In example (11), there is also a repetition of a given event on several occasions:

(11) ‘I’m giving full freedom to the girls now – hanging outs, food, sea, boys, discos,’ she said.

22Other combinations are marked in the plural because they denote an action done on a single occasion (either in the course of a given competition or in the course of a life) by several people:

(12) a couple of Olympic athletes actually got misdirected to their weighing-ins and so didn’t qualify.

(13) in English soccer, this imbalance of decisions (in this instance measured in penalties and ‘sendings-off’) increased with crowd size.

(14) if you can call this coming out, it is one of the weirder coming outs in the history of the genre”.

The diversity of plural meaning observed in these examples is similar to that found in prototypical count nouns, for which the plural marker can denote the idea of “more than one” in various senses, such as objects, births or hiccups.

23Another type of plurality expressed by the grammatical marker -s in the studied data is found in nouns denoting a series of event, not always identified individually, leading to the reference to a global context or situation. Such cases include:

(15) he is being corrupted by this woman’s poisonous carryings on.

(16) Not even a Senate candidate is immune from strange goings on at the polling sites.

(17) From my talks with him I soon realized that he knew more about the goings-on and goings-off of Broadway than anyone I had ever met.

The use of these nouns do not allow the speaker to visualize individual occurrences, and the plural marker denotes a global context, which can be illustrated by the use of a synonym in the singular form: carryings on can be replaced by behaviour; goings(-)on and goings-off are equivalents of activity.

  • 5 Examples from Mignot [2018: 65].

24Goings-on holds a particular status in the subject under discussion. The four possible forms of this combination correspond to 743 tokens in the corpus (80% of the total of collected occurrences). However, regarding its plural marking, this combination is highly unprototypical on two accounts: first, as was previously mentioned, goings-on does not refer to a plurality of events but to a global context or activity, which can be said to regroup various moments and actions, yet it would be difficult to identify the individual events that constitute it. Moreover, and as a result, goings-on is not a variable noun, it does not exist in the singular form. It should rather be regarded as a non-count noun which has a morpheme indicating a quantity of more than one, similar to nouns such as oats or measles5. Payne & Huddleston [2002: 304] notice that nouns ending in -ing that are always plural (such as beginnings, lodgings, makings, goings-on…) do not actually refer to a multiplicity of things, and that they can be replaced by (near) synonyms in the singular form (respectively a start, a house/flat, a potential, a situation). Regarding the link between nominal prototypicality and plural marking, then, goings-on is not a canonical example of nouns, although it is the most frequent combination found in the database.

1.3. -ing morphology

1.3.1. -ing, a denominal suffix?

25Bauer, Lieber & Plag [2013: 202-203] observe that

[all] non-auxiliary verbs in English […] have nominal forms in -ing. […] What is perhaps more interesting is that while all verbs have a nominalization in -ing, a significant number of verbs have only a nominalization in -ing, having neither a nominalization formed with [another affix], nor a nominalization formed by conversion (at least according to standard dictionaries).

26Some linguists (Adamczewski & Delmas [1982], Lapaire & Rotgé [1992], Cotte [1997]), have considered that the -ing morpheme has a privileged relationship with the nominal domain, given that even when it is associated with a clearly verbal base, -ing has the tendency to denote a notion, an entity or a state of affairs rather than to predicate, as is the case for gerundive structures (Brown’s skillfully painting his daughter was wonderful to watchhis skills / technique was wonderful to watch). Adamczewski & Delmas [1982: 56-58] have suggested that -ing’s semantic core is the notion of “nominalization”.

  • 6 The other Old English endings that are today represented by -ing were -ende, which corresponds to t (...)

27Diachronic studies of English morphology have shown that the modern -ing comes from three different Old English endings that have merged due to phonological proximity. One of these endings was a purely nominal suffix which, according to Lancri [2001: 92], was used in nouns of filiation (cyn-ing >> king, son of king; wik-ing >> member of the viking people) or in nouns of activity (ræd-ing >> reading). -Ing was therefore once a purely nominal morpheme6.

28We thus understand that the use of the -ing morpheme to create nouns from verbs is a very productive derivation process. It follows that deverbal -ing nouns are common, yet it does not necessarily entail that the resulting terms are prototypical nouns.

1.3.2. Syntax of -ing deverbal nouns

29The -ing morpheme today is both a canonical nominalisation suffix (to paint >> a painting) and a verbal ending signalling an ongoing process. Quirk et al. [1985: 1290-1291] list the various degrees of transfer from purely verbal to purely nominal readings of -ing constructions, from conjugated progressive sentences (Brown is painting his daughter) to fully deverbal nouns (his paintings of his daughter) via participle (Painting his daughter, he noticed his hand was shaking), gerunds (Brown’s skillfully painting his daughter) and “verbal nouns” (Brown’s deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch).

30Deverbal nouns are prototypical nouns, they can take the plural marker, they can denote concrete objects, and they take determiners and adjectives as dependents. Verbal nouns are less prototypical nouns in that, according to Quirk et al., they are not variable in number, they are non-count, they denote abstract referents, and they require an of-complement to denote the subject or object of the original verb. Bauer, Lieber & Plag [2013: 202] list similar criteria for deverbal nouns in the -ing form:

We are chiefly concerned here with the -ing form that can occur with a determiner, and that takes its complement in the form of a preposition phrase, typically with the preposition of, for example the closing of the Suez Canal […]. What we call the nominal -ing form therefore has the external structure of other forms of nominalizations […], albeit a more active and typically less lexicalised semantics.

31The derived phrasal nouns in the -ing form in our data are fully deverbal nouns. They can take the plural marker, they denote specific actions or events and could be replaced by count nouns (a coming out = a revelation; a falling-out = a row; a breathing out = a breath, an inhalation; a sending-off = a goodbye, an exclusion), and they do not require an of-complement to be used in a sentence.

32To sum up the first section, we see that the studied data are prototypical nouns regarding their syntax; they also take a plural marker, although only half of the studied terms have singular-form counterparts with similar lexical meaning to be found in the COCA. In terms of morphology, they are fully deverbal nouns in the -ing form.

2. Unprototypical compounds

33The first section has shown that in terms of morphosyntax, the studied data are full-fledged nouns. However, the fact that they are made of two separate words is a peculiar morphological characteristic for nouns. Considering the established properties of compounds, I will show in this section that constituents such as dressing downs or crossings-out can be analysed as compound nouns, although unprototypical ones.

2.1. Dictionary entries

  • 7 Regardless of their graphic realisation or of the location of the plural marking.

34The institutionalisation of a combination as a dictionary entry is one of the criteria to establish it as a word, and in particular as a compound. This characteristic tends to be subjective and uneven, depending on the will and understanding of dictionary-makers; but it bears testament to the evolution of a form from lexical creativity to institutional or popular recognition and linguistic entrenchment. Looking up the 42 different types7 of noun-ing (+ hyphen) + particle that are found in our data in the Cambridge Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the Collins, 10 are found in at least one dictionary: dressing-down, sending-off, carrying-on, goings-on, coming out, falling out, opening-up, summing up, crossing-over and cleaning-up.

35The fact that a quarter of the combinations correspond to dictionary entries shows that this kind of word formation is not restricted to context-dependent creations to answer discursive needs, but that it leads to institutionalized new compound nouns, entrenched in the contemporary English lexicon.

2.2. Graphic realisations

36As mentioned in the introduction, there is variation in the spelling of the studied data, in particular regarding the link between the two parts of a given noun. The repartition is as follows: 32 out of 50 types of nouns (64%) include a hyphen. This high proportion is in keeping with Bauer, Lieber & Plag’s observation [2013: 56] that “[a] hyphen is regularly (though not necessarily always) used [...] in compounds made up of a derivative and a particle: a dressing-down”.

  • 8 These examples are respectively borrowed from Payne & Huddleston [2002: 451] and Quirk et al. [1985 (...)

37Hyphenation is generally a sign of compounding. Payne & Huddleston [2002: 451] indicate that there is a tendency for compound nouns to be written in a single graphic unit (blackbird) or in two units linked by a hyphen (ice-cream). They remark, however, that numerous compounds have competing forms with or without hyphens: daisy(-)wheel, flower(-)pot8. Consequently, this criterion is not sufficient to assert that combinations without hyphens are not compounds. It may be noted, still, that as far as word formation is concerned, hyphenation is a graphic convention that is usually restricted to compounding, and not used in derivation (*a build-ing) or in simple syntactic sequences (*a hot-day, *a London-park).

38As mentioned previously, the presence or absence of a hyphen has to be addressed with caution, due to the fact that graphic conventions may vary across types of discourse and depending on speakers. The source corpus includes transcribed spoken sources, blogs, fiction, newspapers and academic writings, which may adopt different spelling conventions. However, the fact that a majority of the collected data includes a hyphen, and that this graphic link is included in various dictionary entries of the studied nouns leads us to consider that it is a relevant characteristic to address the questions of unity and composition of these combinations. It can be concluded at least that the combinations displaying a hyphen have been identified by the author or transcriber of the source text as a compound or a complex lexical unit.

2.3. Stress patterns

39Prototypical compounds have a main stress on the first term, and (often) a secondary stress on the second term (Payne & Huddleston [2002: 451]; Bauer, Lieber & Plag [2013: 443]). However, different types of well-known, institutionalized compound nouns have a primary stress on the second term. This typology is defined as “late stress compounds” (Mignot [2018: 31]); “right-stressed compounds” (Bauer, Lieber & Plag [2013: 444]) or “end-stress compounds” (Giegerich [2004: 1]).

40In order to gather data about the stress pattern of the deverbal phrasal nouns in -ing, I have looked for their pronunciation on Youglish, a website searching for word chains in YouTube videos. 10 of the studied nouns in the plural form can be found: dressings down, sendings off, openings-up, fallings out, workings out, goings-on / going ons, comings out / coming outs, crossings out, zooming ins, phasing ins. Among these, zoomings in, sendings off, openings-up and phasing ins only have one occurrence on Youglish, which are respectively stressed with two primary stresses (ˈzoomings ˈin, ˈsendings ˈoff, ˈopenings ˈup) and with a primary stress on the particle (ˌphasing ˈins). Dressings down, goings on / going ons, comings out / coming outs, crossings out, fallings out and workings-out show that several stress patterns are acceptable for different speakers, although a majority of results show a main stress on the particle.

41Bauer, Lieber & Plage [2013: 442] include such constructions within a broader nominal category that shares the same stress pattern, the primary stress on the particle and secondary stress on the lexical base, with the other form of nominalised phrasal verbs using a suffix: ˌwashingˈup, ˌpasser-ˈby. This stress pattern is characteristic of phrasal verbs (used as verbs), which bear a main stress on the particle. Bare-conversion deverbal phrasal nouns, however, usually take a primary stress on the left element (ˈtakeoff, ˈfallout, ˈput down, ˈblow up (Bauer, Lieber & Plag [2013: 207, 442])), which would indicate that they are better included in the nominal category, and adopt the canonical stress pattern of prototypical compounds, as opposed to phrasal nouns in the -ing form which retain the stress pattern of phrasal verbs.

2.4. Internal syntax

42In canonical compounds, a “righthand head rule” (Williams [1981], cited in Bauer et al. [2013: 443]) applies: “it can be observed that canonical compounds have the peculiar property that, in general, the righthand member determines the grammatical properties of the whole compound, and is therefore called the head of the compound.” In coverings-up or coming outs, the second element is a particle which, on its own, is neither semantic, syntactic or grammatical head. Dealing with bare-conversion phrasal nouns such as takeoff or blow up, Bauer et al. [2013: 442] indicate that these “forms derived by conversion into nouns from phrasal verbs” should be treated as “non-canonical compounds”, by which they mean constituents that were not “formed by productively combining two or more bases”. It does not mean, however, that such terms are not compounds, since well-documented combinations such as passer-by have several characteristics of proper compound nouns, such as dictionary entries and identified, end-stress patterns. It follows that the studied combinations, which are very similar to the passer-by type, can also be regarded as compounds, even if unprototypical ones.

43To sum up this section, we can see that the studied nouns share some characteristics of compounds, including morphology (they appear as two words, often linked by a hyphen) and lexicalisation (some of these terms are included in dictionaries). Stress patterns suggest that -ing phrasal nouns are closer to phrasal verbs than to prototypical compound nouns. Considering criteria found in the literature, finally, it is difficult to consider that they are prototypical compound nouns, due to the nature of the second element, which is not a lexical word. They should therefore be regarded as proper compounds with unprototypical characteristics.

3. Variation in morphology: patterns of nominalization

  • 9 I acknowledge that the small quantity of data is an obstacle to the study of tendances, let alone s (...)

44The set of data studied in this paper is interesting on two main accounts: it displays a complex form of lexical formation, marked by several grammatical operations (the transfer from one lexical category to another, the use of a suffix to achieve this transfer, and the notion of plurality emerging in the process); and it shows that these different operations can be marked in several ways, as was illustrated in the introduction (examples (1) to (4)). Because of the lack of standardisation to achieve this particular type of nominalisation, the variations in form give us an account of the process of derivation (the nominal suffix, the plural nature of the entity) but also an account of the different ways in which these operations can be completed9. We will see that variation in the location of the plural marker modifies what speakers perceive as a noun (or nominal constituent), and that variation in the presence or absence of the -ing suffix in nominalisations influences the semantics of the resulting terms.

3.1. Variation in the plural marking

3.1.1. Location of the plural marker

  • 10 In our data, we find three occurrences of dressings-down: while this very small number of occurrenc (...)

45The existing literature does not offer the description of rules or tendencies in the plural of nominalised phrasal verbs ending in -ing. This kind of lexical formation is mentioned by Bauer & Huddleston [2002: 1654-1656] in a study on “compound nouns” based on verbs and where “the non-verbal element is a preposition”. The authors compare constructions with -er and -ing suffixes (hanger-on, dressing-down) and consider that they have different behaviours as far as the plural marking is concerned. In constructions with the -er suffix, “[p]lurals are formed by adding -s to the noun in -er: […] this means that the plural suffix precedes the preposition: hangers-on, runners-up”. However, Bauer & Huddleston consider that constructions such as dressing-down, talking-to, washing-up, going-over ou summing-up, “do not readily occur in the plural: neither ?dressings-down nor ?dressing-downs sounds acceptable”.10

46Jespersen [1954: 2.41-2.42] considers that in forming plurals of compounds, two tendencies coexist: the historical tendency to inflect the substantival part (when there is one: cut throats, courts-martial, bagsful) and the “modern” tendency to inflect the last element (court-martials, handfuls). The author shows [1954: 2.43] that “[s]ubstantives formed (without ending) from a verb-phrase consisting of verb and adverb (prep.) sometimes take the plural ending in the first and sometimes in the second element. […] Servants with their answers back; […] break away: breaks away; […] draw back: always drawbacks”. Finally, Jespersen [1954: 2.51-2.52] notes the existence of a “type looker on” and a “type going on” in his study of plurals in compounds. The author indicates:

  • 11 The difference in suffix constitutes a relevant morphosemantic factor in determining the place of t (...)

2.51. Words of this type (verb in -er + adverb) always have -s added to the first element: […] standers by, […] goers out, hangers on, passers by. 11

2.52. The same is true of verbal nouns in -ing + adv.: […] what are thy comings in? […] his own bringings forth; […] his usual goings on; […] the daily callings-over; […] all rushings down; […] facile settings up; […] carryings on (…).

47Bauer et al. [2013: 140-141] give an account of plural marking in “complex lexical items”: “[t]he general rule for complex lexical items is that they take the plural marker on the righthand edge of the word: drop-outs, forget-me-nots”. This tendency is consistent with the plural marking of nominalised phrasal verbs that do not bear a grammatical suffix, as mentioned by Quirk et al. [1985: 313]: sit-ins, take-offs. Bauer et al. also discuss the special case of nominalised phrasal verbs with the -er suffix (similarly to Bauer & Huddleston [2002]), showing that canonically, in these constructions, the -s falls at the end of the lexical base:

Agent nouns coined from phrasal verbs with the structure V-er-Prep have the plural mark on the first element: hangers-on, passers-by, runners-up. However, even here, right edge plural forms can be found: passer-bys, runner-ups. These are regarded as incorrect, and are still minority forms, but they can be found even in edited text.

In the studied data, most of the nouns have a plural marker on the first term, the lexical base, in proportion of types (62%) and tokens (87%), which constitutes a clear tendency.

48A diachronic comparison of the forms goings-on, goings on, going-ons and going ons on Ngram viewer, between the 1800s and the present days, show that the two combinations with the -s on the lexical base (goings(-)on) have a much higher frequency of occurrence throughout the period. There does not seem to be a shift in morphological paradigm in recent years. Similarly, the Corpus of Historical American English, which takes into account sources from 1810 to 2019, gives 430 occurrences of goings(-)on and none of going(-)ons. On Ngram viewer, similar results were obtained for other nouns that can have alternating locations for the plural marker (comings out / coming outs, actings-out / acting-outs, sendings-off / sending-offs): both types of lexical formation seem to have become more frequent since the 1990s, but it is not possible to witness a significant evolution of the location of the plural marker over time, which is consistent with Bauer & Huddleston’s findings concerning the tendency to have a plural marker on the first term when it bears a suffix, as well as with Jespersen’s point [1954: 2.52].

49Overall, a plural marking on the particle is less frequent in the collected data and is considered unprototypical (or even impossible) in the literature. The COCA shows that this morphology is productive, however, and not uncommon. It is possible to consider that the absence of a homogeneous morphology is testament to the different understanding of the referent, to the different processes of nominalisation, or even to the internal structure of the resulting lexical items.

3.1.2. Internal structure of phrasal nouns and place of the plural marker

50As far as phrasal verbs are concerned, the internal structure is clear: the first element, the lexical base, is the syntactic head (it takes grammatical endings to express the tense or person) as well as the grammatical head (it is the part indicating that the whole constituent is a verb). In terms of meaning, a phrasal verb is analysed as a compound, because its meaning is often non-compositional, it is not the sum of the meaning of each component, but is more complex and cannot be straightforwardly analysed (to come out is not to be literally understood as the movement towards the exterior of something). For that reason, it can be seen as irrelevant to wonder whether either part is the semantic head: phrasal verbs have a complex (two-part) semantic head.

51The internal structure of nouns obtained by derivation from phrasal verbs may be more ambiguous. From a grammatical point of view, the first term bears the -ing suffix which can be considered as a nominal marker (as illustrated in Section 1.3.). The first element should then be considered the grammatical head, which indicates that the whole constituent is a noun. This hypothesis is corroborated by the syntax in cases where the plural marker falls on the first element: in sendings-off, sendings is the syntactic head because it takes the syntactic mark for the plural. Bauer & Huddleston [2002: 1656] discuss this hierarchy for nominalised phrasal verbs in -er (hangers-on): the fact that the -s falls on the first element “is a clear indication that the preposition is a dependent element: the plural suffix is added to the head noun”.

52Let us now consider the internal structure of phrasal nouns in -ing which bear a plural marker on the particle. This pattern is the less productive one, as mentioned earlier (only 38% of types and 13% of tokens have a plural marker on the particle), and it differs from the canonical morphology of derived phrasal nouns that take a suffix, as described in the literature (Jespersen [1924], Bauer & Huddleston [2002], Bauer et al. [2013]).

53Two complementary interpretations of the righthand-side plural marking can be given regarding the nominal nature of this unit. Firstly, the plural -s on the particle marks a compact, cohesive unit comparable to other nouns, either simple nouns (houses), proper compounds (head(-)teachers, ice-creams) or other morphologically complex nouns (outbursts, jack-o’-lanterns). A noun such as taking offs is then closely related, in terms of the meaning of the morphology, to its synonym takeoffs. Other examples include the following:

(18) I wasn’t going to be the guy who missed one of those iconic rising-ups that define a generation.

In this sentence, rising-ups is a clearly defined concept (as suggested by the meaning of the preceding adjective) that is obtained by the interpretation of the two graphic elements as a single unit, both semantically and syntactically. In that respect, phrasal nouns in -ing which take a plural marker on the particle follow the expected morphology of most count nouns, and signal that these constructions have a complex syntactic head, formed by the whole base + particle constituent, which is consistent with the analysis of the complex semantic head (due to its non-compositional meaning) for such combinations. The morphology here shows that the two terms are necessarily associated to name a category.

54At the same time, the fact that this pattern differs from the canonical morphology of deverbal phrasal nouns with suffixes signals that the whole unit is not fully recognised as a prototypical complex noun in the English lexicon, or at least that it is an intermediary step in the creation of an identified, entrenched notion. In the studied data, various occurrences mark the inventive, uncanonical status of these lexical creations by the use of inverted commas, which occur mostly with constructions bearing a plural marker on the particle:

(19) A couple of ‘coming ups’. Coming up on Monday…

(20) in English soccer, this imbalance of decisions (in this instance measured in penalties and ‘sending-offs’) increased with crowd size.

The existence of a competing, well-identified and more canonical form for the marking of the plural, with the pattern of goings-on or passers-by, leads to present the base + particle-s pattern as a less standard, more innovative model. This morphological pattern signals a category in the making, often coined in discourse for the needs of communication in context.

55The place of the plural marker thus influences not only our interpretation of the internal structure of the nouns, but even our understanding of the status of such lexical formations. The base-+ particle pattern signals a head + dependent-type complex noun, while the constructions that have an -s on the right edge suggest that the constituent is a lexical innovation used to show that an element of the real world is fixed into a (new) category.

3.2. Variation in suffixation

3.2.1. -ing morphology and the eventive reading

56The -ing suffix influences the semantics of the studied combinations in terms of the kind of referents that can be denoted. Although -ing nouns can denote concrete physical objects (a building, a painting), the nouns under scrutiny rarely do so: the vast majority of them have eventive readings, whether they denote single events (dressings-down, zoomings-in, sendings-off, pilings-on, workings-out, fallings-out, crossings out, rising-ups), or repetitive processes that tend to blend into a global situation (whisperings around, goings-off, carryings-on, goings-on, passings-through). Examples (21) and (22), which come from the same source, are the only exceptions, where the -ing phrasal nouns denote a concrete object (the outfit of a character):

(21) the King observes that Anna’s exposed shoulders and decolletage ensconced within her magnificent mauve satin gown are more shocking than his ladies’ customary exposure because “they do not wear so many coverings up on other parts of the body, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

(22) This momentary image reveals the unsettling possibility that Anna’s “coverings-up”, like the Siamese dancer’s, are woven from the bodies of native children.

57Regarding the influence of the suffix towards an eventive reading of nouns ending in -ing, Bauer et al. [2013: 207] indicate that “[a]ll -ing nominals have an eventive reading, as do many, if not most, affixal nominalisations”. This restriction in the type of referent can be expected, since the noun is the result of a transfer from an original verb, which prototypically denotes a process. But the fact that almost all the studied nouns denote events or actions is still noteworthy, because other kinds of deverbal nouns do not have this restriction, and rather allow for a change in the type of referent, from processes in the verbal form to individuals, objects or abstract notions in the nominal form. In particular, this is true of bare conversions of phrasal verbs or verb-er + preposition nominalisations: a passer-by, a dropout (individuals), a write-off, a lean-to (objects), a breakthrough, an onset (abstract notion). In the studied data, then, the restriction in types of referents is not only due to the nature of the original term, but is a significant semantic characteristic of this type of nominalisation.

58It follows that this word-formation process creates unprototypical members of the nominal category in terms of semantics, since there is a restriction in the kind of referent that can be denoted. Moreover, according to Lyons’s typology [1977], nouns are ranked in relation to the type of referents they denote, and the most prototypical nouns denote first-order entities (concrete entities such as people, animals, objects and places). Nouns with eventive readings only correspond to second-order entities: “[b]y second-order entities we shall mean events, processes, states-of-affairs, etc., which are located in time and which, in English, are said to occur or take place, rather than to exist” [1977: 443].

3.2.2. -ing vs. bare conversions: competing forms of nominalisations

59The specific semantic and grammatical readings of the -ing suffix have to be interpreted in comparison with other forms of nominalisations, in particular the bare conversion of phrasal verbs (a weigh-in, a carry on). Bauer & Huddleston [2002: 1702] remark that an -ing nominalisation is often the only word-formation process available to create deverbal nouns. However, when other nominalisations are possible, the authors observe that the -ing form is less idiomatic:

With a good number of verbs, suffixation with -ing is the only way of forming a deverbal noun: coming, feeling, forgetting, opening, painting, rendering, understanding, undertaking, writing. In other cases, we find a difference in meaning or in the range of permitted complements between the -ing noun and a noun formed from the same base by another suffix or by conversion: compare such pairs as breakage ~ breaking, laughter ~ laughing (his constant laughing/*laughter at me), knock ~ knocking, work ~ working. In other cases, an -ing noun can substitute for some other deverbal noun without a change of meaning: classification / classifying, completion / completing, postponement / postponing, removal / removing. In such cases the -ing formation often tends to sound (in varying degrees) less idiomatic, less natural than the other, but not to the extent of being ungrammatical.

60As described in the preceding section, 48 out of the 50 possible forms of nominalisation in -ing have an eventive reading, a very high proportion compared to the bare conversion of the same phrasal verbs.

61In our data, 11 constructions have a competing, bare-conversion form with a very similar or synonymous meaning: zoomings-in, phasing-ins, weighing-ins, taking offs, trading-offs, pilings-on, crossings-out, goings out, phasing-out, summings-up, cleaning-ups. A comparative query on N-gram viewer shows that the bare form is always more frequent than the -ing form, which corroborates Bauer & Huddleston’s remark concerning the fact that these nouns are somewhat less idiomatic than the bare conversion forms, but grammatically acceptable nonetheless.

629 combinations have a competing, bare conversion form with a different meaning, send-off, carry-on, come-out, fallout, workout, hangout, crossover, passthrough, coverup. Among these, 5 can denote concrete objects: a carry-on, a passthrough, a hangout, a crossover, a coverup (referring to outer garment). Even among the terms referring to processes, the bare-conversion form seems to have a less dynamic meaning: a send-off is a moment of gathering, and the noun focuses our attention on the occasion, while a sending-off denotes the action of kicking out a player from a sports game. Similarly, a fallout denotes the consequences of a negative event, while a falling-out describes the process of people breaking their relationship. When competing -ing vs. bare-conversion forms exist with different meanings, then, the -ing form has a more dynamic, eventive meaning.

63Finally, the fact that 24 types of -ing nouns do not have a competing, bare-conversion form confirms that the -ing derivation is in itself a productive process of nominal formation; but as mentioned above, this process of word formation tends to create nouns with eventive, dynamic meanings, which retain part of the semantics of their verbal origin.


64The data that were collected for the present paper give us interesting new takes on the process of nominalisation, on the degrees of nominal prototypicality that can be achieved by this word formation, and consequently, on the nominal category in itself. It appears that most of these nouns, especially nouns bearing the plural marker on the lexical base, are not only coined in context, to answer discursive needs in particular sentences, but that they are lexicalised. The process of creating (fully) deverbal nouns from phrasal verbs in the -ing form is productive. The fact that these forms exist with a plural marker includes them straightforwardly within the nominal class, among the subclass of count nouns. The presence of the -ing suffix also identifies the constituent as a noun. The morphology, orthography and stress pattern of these nouns indicate that they are complex lexical units, but not fully prototypical compounds. Finally, differences in morphology suggest different patterns of nominalisation. The variation in the location of the plural marker delineates two types of nominal morphology, which each influences the way we interpret the internal structure of these terms, and the way they are integrated into the lexicon. In comparison with bare-conversion competing forms, however, the -ing suffix of the studied terms restricts their meaning to eventive readings, closer to what verbs usually do.

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Appendix 1. List of collected data

Types of combinations

Number of tokens

Types of combinations

Number of tokens

Number of types




whisperings around















goings in























sending offs



taking offs











carryings on







goings on


going ons

























comings out


coming outs





crossings out






fallings out



goings out






workings out







hanging outs










crossing overs
















coverings up










summings up













coming ups


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1 This paper is based on a quite restricted number of occurrences, which raises questions regarding the applicability and range of the conclusions that are given. As pointed out by an anonymous reviewer, this issue could be remedied by using another corpus to find data, in particular a corpus containing higher proportions of spoken, colloquial or informal English. Due to lack of time, such research could not be included in the present paper but will be addressed in a near future.

2 The very nature of the units dressings-down and coming outs is subject to debate, but since they are originally phrasal verbs, composed of a verbal base and a particle, I have chosen to use the term “(lexical) base” to refer to the left component (dressings or coming), and “particle” to refer to the right element (down or outs).

3 A Wikipedia page is dedicated to “English phrasal nouns” and lists 476 nouns derived from phrasal verbs in the infinitive form, either directly (a bleed out) or by the inversion of the lexical base and the particle (an uptake).

4 Other parts of speech, and indeed all linguistic signs, also have the ability to categorize, to distinguish between various realities in the extralinguistic world. Mignot [2018: 125] shows that nouns have a special link with categorisation given that their only role is to categorize : “[the nominal class] categorizes more and better than any other class, because that is all that it does – contrary to verbs and adjectives which, of course, categorize as well, processes and properties respectively, but they also have another role, since processes and properties are said in relation to other entities”.

5 Examples from Mignot [2018: 65].

6 The other Old English endings that are today represented by -ing were -ende, which corresponds to the present particle ending, and -enne, used to create gerund or infinitive forms.

7 Regardless of their graphic realisation or of the location of the plural marking.

8 These examples are respectively borrowed from Payne & Huddleston [2002: 451] and Quirk et al. [1985: 1569].

9 I acknowledge that the small quantity of data is an obstacle to the study of tendances, let alone standardisation, of this particular process of nominalisation. In particular, the different types of source texts in which the studied combinations appear can follow different written conventions, errors in the transcription of spoken sources can occur, etc. However, the two variation phenomena that are dealt with in this third part concern a majority of the studied data and are registered in the literature. The point of this section will not be to quantify these variations, but to observe their potential influence on the nominal characteristics of the combinations, or to assess whether a change in morphology triggers a change in meaning in the nominal category.

10 In our data, we find three occurrences of dressings-down: while this very small number of occurrences concurs with the idea that the plural is rare and would seem unacceptable to most speakers, it exists and poses questions regarding the understanding of the location of the plural marker.

11 The difference in suffix constitutes a relevant morphosemantic factor in determining the place of the plural marker, as -er clearly signals the creation of a noun, usually denoting a first-order entity (a person or thing doing the action denoted by the original phrasal verb, an agent). In English compounds that are made of one noun and one other part of speech, the plural marker bears on the nominal element. This remark was suggested by a reviewer, to whom I am very grateful.

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Electronic reference

Marie Turlais, “Nominalisation of phrasal verbs in the -ing forms with a plural marker (goings-on, coming outs): a study of nominal characteristics”Lexis [Online], 22 | 2023, Online since 29 December 2023, connection on 25 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marie Turlais

Sorbonne Université, France

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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