A seasonal greetings card has somehow evaded the striking Post Office workers and arrived early on my mantelpiece. It’s a pretty card with angels and bells, and the message inside is: ‘Wishing you Peace and Joy this Christmas.’ Familiar enough wording, but not quite as obvious as one might think. It doesn’t say ‘To wish you peace and joy…’: the straightforward infinitive. What part of speech is ‘wishing’ in that sentence?
Come to think of it, it’s a similar construction to what we find in the slogans that government departments and other worthy public bodies often attach to their announcements nowadays. The Metropolitan Police, for instance, run a reassuring summary of their purpose in life: ‘Working together for a safer London’. I call these helpful (but often slightly fatuous) phrases Mission Statement Gerundives.
The gerundive is a grammatical construction that goes back to the ancient Romans. It used to be taught in Latin lessons at school, along with a related construction, the gerund. Here the same part of speech, the present participle, takes on the role not of an adjective but of a noun, as in this sentence: ‘Working is good for the mind and body as well as for the pocket’. The gerundive takes the participle as an adjective, qualifying the noun ‘the police’ – or the Christmas card. The gerund makes the participle itself, ‘working’, into a noun, the subject of the sentence.
The online dictionary tells us that a gerundive derives from the Latin construction denoting an action ‘that should or must be done’. We’ve perhaps lost that sense of urgency but it survives all the same, as the usage is still there, and has come into almost daily prominence with the need of all types of organisation to put ideas across smartly and concisely. These are the imperatives of advertising, which does indeed convey urgency: the need to spend money, or to persuade people to spend money is at the heart of our capitalist world, and never more so than at Christmas. In the twenty-first century the gerundive is enjoying a new lease of life
In the bad old days of Education (as opposed to the modern ‘Learning’, which sounds as though it’s what tiny tots do between the milk and the lemonade at infants’ school), there existed a useful rhyme or mnemonic, to help pupils (‘students’ nowadays) to grasp the difference between gerunds and gerundives: ‘The gerundive is an adjective, the gerund is a noun, and if you don’t remember that, I’ll bend you smartly down.’ Eheu, a lost world indeed.