Grammar Moses: You can call me HAL

Updated 4/8/2023 4:57 PM

Is it live or is it Memorex?

You remember the old advertising slogan for Memorex audiotape, which, in the age of lossless compression and 44.1k digital streaming, seems rather quaint.


Today, I'm going to try a little experiment to see whether you can differentiate me from artificial intelligence.

I already know what you're thinking: Artificial intelligence is preferable to this half-wit any day.

I've read all sorts of things about ChatGPT, the latest and greatest in the world of the humanlike computer interface, and reporters' creepy conversations with it.

That's not what this is about.

While I'm becoming increasingly concerned the movie "Terminator" is an actual historic retelling of the takeover of artificial intelligence in the near future, I'm more concerned that kids will be using ChatGPT to fake their way through school by having ChatGPT generate essays on any topic they wish in a matter of seconds, which would make a mockery of the education system and produce a generation of adults too stupid to know when they've been co-opted by computers.

Oops, my Robert Heinlein is showing.

I have monkeyed with this thing for about an hour, and it's a lot like playing with a Ouija board. I'm not itching to get my palm read or phone a psychic, in part because I like surprises, in part because I'm a cheapskate and in part because I don't believe in that sort of thing. But I'm still a bit queasy not knowing exactly how a person or a piece of plastic moving across a game board seems to know something about me.

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That said, I selected a topic I've addressed just once in eight years -- gerunds -- and wrote a short column item on it. Then I asked ChatGPT to write a funny column for grammar nerds about gerunds.

I'll give you both versions, and you tell me which was mine.

Example A

Today, I want to talk about gerunds. You know, those words that end in -ing and can function as a noun? Yeah, those guys.

Now, some people might find gerunds to be a bit boring or confusing, but I'm here to tell you that they can be hilarious if you give them a chance.

For example, have you ever heard the joke about the gerund who couldn't stop partying? He was always verb-ing! OK, OK, I know that was a bit cheesy, but come on, it's a gerund joke!


And how about this one: Why did the gerund break up with the infinitive? Because he was always "verb-ing" on her nerves! Get it? Because "verbing" sounds like "irritating"? But in all seriousness, gerunds are pretty cool. They can act as the subject or object of a sentence, or even as the object of a preposition. And they can be used in all sorts of ways, like in the sentence "I love swimming in the ocean" or "She enjoys reading books by the fire."

So the next time you come across a gerund, don't be afraid to embrace its humorous side. Maybe even try to come up with your own gerund jokes. Who knows, you might just make your English teacher chuckle.

Example B

When is a noun a verb?

When it's a gerund.

OK, that probably requires some elaboration.

One sinks or swims (a verb), but the activity of "swimming" is a noun. And that's what we mean by a gerund.

My favorite activities are gerunds: eating, writing, joking, golfing, reading, listening, hiking, watching, eating, sleeping and eating.

But then all of my activities are gerunds. My least favorite activities -- shivering, worrying, gardening, wiping up cat vomit, shopping on Saturdays at Costco and gardening -- also are gerunds.

Gerunds can be the subject of a sentence, but they can also be the object or the object of prepositions.

They're wonderfully versatile, and we use them all of the time. It's a wonder then when you ask your average Joe what a gerund is, the No. 1 answer beyond an exaggerated shrug is: "swimming"?


It's up to you, dear reader. Tell me whether you think ChatGPT wrote Example A or B and explain why.

The AI took 41 seconds to craft its blurb. I intentionally whizzed through mine in about five minutes.

I'll follow up next week.

Meanwhile, write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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