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Concourse 2

Catenative verbs


The verb catenate (which has its origins in the Latin catena, a chain) may be defined as join together in a series.
You may be familiar with the term catenation as it is used in the analysis of connected speech where it refers to how sounds are linked.  That is not the concern here but the concepts are analogous.

There is a range of verbs in English which can be followed by a non-finite form in a chain of meanings.
That non-finite may be the to-infinitive or a gerund, the -ing form.  A few verbs also catenate with the bare infinitive.
Here's an example of a catenated structure:
    I agreed to try making more effort
in which the main, finite verb is agree and its object consists of a nominalised clause with two non-finite verb forms: to try, making.
How verbs catenate and the associated grammar is a source of considerable error for learners of English for two reasons:

  1. It is not easy to predict which non-finite structures will follow a verb
  2. Other languages do things differently and not all have anything similar to the English non-finite forms

(If you are wondering, the verb is pronounced /ˈkæ.tɪ.neɪt/, the adjective is /ˈkæ.ˌtɪ.nət.ɪv/ or /kəˈti:.nə.tɪv/ (your choice) and the noun is pronounced /ˌkæ.tɪ.ˈneɪ.ʃən/.)

Before we consider what sorts of structures are involved, we need to make clear what are not, sensu stricto, catenative verbs.

None of the following is an example of catenative verb use for the reasons given:

Another issue is that modal auxiliary verbs, which are often followed by the bare infinitive non-finite form or even the to-infinitive are not usually considered examples of catenation.  So, for example:
    I must go now
    She should arrive soon

    I have to start somewhere
etc. are not considered here.
However, there is a grey area when we come to consider semi-modal auxiliary verbs such as dare, need and used.
When these verbs are used as full modal auxiliaries as in, for example:
    I dared not ask again
    I need not tell you
    Used he to work here?

they are not considered examples of catenation but when they are used as full lexical verbs in, for example:
    I didn't dare to ask
    I don't need to do that
    Did he used to work here?

they may be considered examples of catenation but will not be included here as the verbs are dealt with elsewhere on this site.

Finally, we need to consider prepositional verbs and phrasal prepositional verbs, some of which catenate as in, for example:
    She went on talking
    I put off meeting him
    Her time was taken up with caring for her children

All these are examples of catenating multi-word verbs but, because adverb particles and prepositions are always following by the -ing form, they will not intrude on the following analysis.

The following contains some long lists.  If you want them as a PDF document, there is a link at the end.


Verbs followed by the to-infinitive

agree to cooperate  

In nearly all cases, the use of the to-infinitive signals that the event represented by the main verb takes place before that represented by the following verb(s).  In other words, the use is prospective rather than retrospective.  This is not an absolute rule but is certainly the way to bet.
For example, if one says:
    I agreed to come
then the agreeing clearly precedes the coming.
This rule of thumb applies even when the following action is unfulfilled as in, e.g.:
    I declined to go with them
because even here, the declining precedes the not going.
The following are the most common of these verbs with some notes where necessary.

Verb Example Notes
afford We can afford to buy the car Almost invariably with can.
agree They agreed to differ In AmE usage, this verb is transitive.
aim We aim to take a winter holiday
allow I allowed him to go The verb let takes the bare infinitive
appear She appeared to agree This verb is also copular as in, e.g., She appeared agreeable.
apply They applied to leave
arrange They arranged to arrive early This verb is transitive and often followed by a gerund as the object as in, e.g. The hotel arranged parking for us.
ask John asked to leave
attempt She attempted to interrupt Compare try (below) which varies in meaning.
beg I beg to differ Formal use.
begin It began to rain  
care Would you care to dance? This verb is nearly always used in the negative or in questions only: i.e., non-assertive uses.
cease I ceased to argue The verb stop takes a gerund.  With the infinitive, the interpretation is in order to.
chance I chanced to meet him in the hotel bar Formal use.
choose I chose to stay silent
condescend They condescended to talk to me 
consent Do you consent to pay the money?
contrive He contrived to get lost somehow
decide We decided to go
decline I decline to comment 
demand I demand to be heard
deserve She deserves to win 
determine I determined to go This is a formal use.  Frequently the participle adjective is used as in, e.g., I am determined to go.
encourage She encouraged me to ask The verb is also used before a noun derived from the verb (a gerund) so, e.g.: She doesn't encourage smoking in the hotel
endeavour I endeavoured to help
elect She elected to stay
expect Mary expected to fail
fail Mary failed to win
forbid I have forbidden him to come This also works with the gerund in, e.g., I forbid smoking here (see encourage, above)
happen I happened to see her This is also considered a marginal modal auxiliary verb.
hasten I hasten to add This is now almost confined to the set expression with to add.
help I helped to finish the work The bare infinitive can also be used as in, e.g. Can you help finish?  See also below for can't help plus the gerund.
hesitate I hesitate to complain
hope I hope to see you there
intend I intend to see him today Rarely, this verb is followed by a gerund with no change in meaning.
learn I learnt to swim at school
long I long to see her again
manage They managed to arrive on time
move I move to adjourn A rare and formal meaning.
neglect I neglected to tell her  
omit I omitted to explain clearly  
offer I offered to help
plan I planned to go Compare intend and mean.
prepare I prepared to travel
pretend They pretended to work
proceed I proceeded to start at once Formal use.
promise I promise to help
refuse I refuse to help
resolve I resolved to wait
seek I sought to explain
seem She seemed to be happy Compare appear.
strive I strove to understand Formal.
struggle The company struggles to survive
swear Mary swore to tell the truth
tend They tend to stay up late This is also considered a marginal modal auxiliary verb.
threaten They threatened to sue
trouble Please don't trouble to drive This is almost exclusively used in the negative.
undertake They undertook to act as agents
volunteer John volunteered to help
wait I waited to see what she would say This is sometimes followed by and plus a verb as in, e.g., Wait and see.
want I want to go now  
wish I wish to complain Formal use.
would like Would you like to come? By their nature, many structures with would follow this pattern.
The following only catenate in the passive.  In the active form, the object is placed between the verb and the non-finite form.
Almost all the uses are more formal.
allow They were not allowed to come
ask She was asked to keep it
call They were called to explain Formal use.
command I was commanded to stay
compel John was compelled to explain
destine He was destined to fail
encourage They were encouraged to come
entitle I am not entitled to complain
forbid I was forbidden to enter Actively, this verb is also used with the gerund (see below).
force She was forced to work late
instruct I was instructed to remain
intend They were intended to have the money See above for the verb used in a slightly different sense. 
invite She was invited to attend
move I was moved to complain The sense here is different from the example of move above.
order They were ordered to appear
permit They were permitted to enter
request You are requested to leave
require She is required to remain
teach I was taught to swim
tell They were told to stay
tempt I was tempted to go


Verbs followed by the gerund (-ing form)

I enjoy relaxing in the pool  

These verbs consistently, not invariably, refer to past experience or to a retrospective view of events.
For example, if one says:
    She admitted stealing the money
it is clear that the admission follows the theft and in, e.g.:
    I hate standing in a queue
the clear implication is that the speaker has experience of standing in a queue and hates it.  Compare:
    I would hate to hurt his feelings
which is clearly a prospective use and the verb catenates with the infinitive.
This is an unreliable rule of thumb and there are many exceptions.

The other aid to memory is that the majority of verbs used with a gerund can just as easily (often more naturally) be followed by a direct noun object.  As a gerund is often described as a verbal noun, this is unsurprising.
Not listed here are phrasal and prepositional verbs because, with rare exceptions they are always followed by the gerund.

Verb Example Notes
acknowledge They acknowledged making the mistake  
admit They admitted stealing the money
advise They advised waiting a little This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
allow They allow smoking in the lounge This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
appreciate I appreciate receiving the help
avoid I can't avoid thinking about it Compare the use of help in this meaning. 
can't bear I can't bear talking to him Confined to negative use.
complete They have completed repairing the car
consider I considered taking the car This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
delay We should not delay opening
deny I deny taking the money
detest I detest queuing for things
dislike She dislikes arguing with people
enjoy They enjoy learning French
entail The work entails rewriting the program This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
escape He escaped being called up
fancy I fancy seeing a film This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule' although it is arguably premised on seeing films before.
finish They have finished painting the house
forbid We forbid smoking here But note, We forbid you to smoke
can't help I can't help thinking about it Confined to the negative use.
imagine I can't imagine living with her
imply It implies spending even more money This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
involve It involves travelling to Russia This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
keep He keeps arguing with me
mind I don't mind waiting Usually used on the negative or, + would, in questions. 
miss I miss working with them
permit They don't permit gambling in this state
practise She is practising playing the piano
prohibit The law prohibits drinking and driving
quit I have quit smoking Mostly AmE usage.
recall I recall seeing him Compare remember.
recommend I recommend asking her This is a prospective use and breaks the 'rule'.
regret I regret asking her
require I do not require telling twice
resent I resent waiting in the cold
resist I can't resist laughing at her
resume We resumed working at 5
risk He risked losing everything
see I can see knowing for certain is better
(can't) stand I can't stand walking in the wind This is almost solely used in the negative.
suggest I suggest waiting a little
tolerate I can tolerate working with them
understand We understand getting the right price is vital
want The window wants cleaning BrE usage.


Verbs followed by the either a gerund or to-infinitive with no (or very little) change in meaning

I started making mistakes
when I began to get tired

There are a few verbs which can be followed by either the to-infinitive or a gerund with no change in meaning.  Sometimes one form is more common and that is noted here.

  • intend
    I intend going
    I intend to go

    (The second is preferred.)
  • start
    I started to walk
    I started walking

    (Neither is strongly preferred.)
  • bear
    I can't bear to listen to rap music
    I can't bear listening to rap music

    (The second is usually preferred.)
  • begin
    It began to snow
    It began snowing

    (The first is preferred.)
  • bother
    She didn't bother telling me
    She didn't bother to tell me

    (Neither is strongly preferred.)
  • continue
    He continued to complain
    He continued complaining

    (Neither is strongly preferred.)
  • like
    I like swimming
    I like to swim

    (The first is preferred and the second sometimes refers to a specific type of action.  E.g., I like to swim after breakfast)
  • prefer
    I prefer working at home
    I prefer to work at home

    (Neither is strongly preferred.)


Verbs followed by the either a gerund or to-infinitive with a change in meaning

try taking a painkiller or
try to eat something

A few polysemous verbs vary in meaning depending on whether they are followed by a gerund or a to-infinitive.  It is here that the prospective - retrospective 'rule' comes into its own.

  • remember
    I remember posting the letter
    I remembered to post the letter

    (The first means that the remembering came after the act of posting; the second means that the remembering came before the act of posting.)
  • forget
    I forgot meeting him
    I forgot to meet him

    (The first means that the forgetting came after the meeting; the second means that the forgetting came first so the meeting did not happen.)
  • regret
    I regret to tell you that you are wrong
    I regret telling you that you are wrong

    (The first introduces the act of telling; the second looks back on it with regret.)
  • try
    Try opening a window
    Try to open a window

    (The first is a suggestion to see if an action improves things; the second anticipates that the act will be difficult or impossible.)
  • mean
    I mean to talk to her
    It means travelling to London

    (The first means intend; the second means involves.)
  • propose
    I propose to go to America
    I propose going to America

    (The first means intend; the second means suggest.)


Verbs followed by to and a gerund

try taking a painkiller or
try to eat something

A few verbs are followed by to plus a gerund, -ing form.  They may alternatively simply be analysed as the use of a gerund after the preposition to (as is entirely normal) in the same way that we have a gerund following prepositional verbs such as:
    I depend on receiving the money
    He can't conceive of arriving late
    They complained about eating so early
In the following list, object to and commit to may certainly be analysed in that way.
This is almost the complete list (we think):

  • be used
    I am used to working late at the office
  • be accustomed
    I am accustomed to walking in the snow
  • be up
    Are you up to eating something?
  • feel up
    Do you feel up to a walk after lunch?
  • look forward
    I look forward to meeting her mother
  • object
    I object to waiting for you in the rain
  • take
    I took to playing golf when I retired
  • be averse
    I am averse to eating in smoky restaurants
  • be opposed
    I am opposed to taking risks with my money
  • be committed
    She is committed to helping them


Verbs followed by a bare infinitive

A few verbs can catenate with the bare infinitive although in one case (help) the to-infinitive is also possible.  Here's the list:

  • let
    Don't let go!
  • make
    I can make do with almost no money
  • hear
    I hear tell he's quite rich
  • help
    Please help repair the table

    (Please help to repair the table is also possible.)


Teaching the forms

Teaching in this area is undeniably challenging especially when one considers that many languages do not share the characteristics of English either having no infinitive form at all (like Greek) or, like French and many others, having only a single form of the non-finite.
Learners whose first language only has one non-finite form to choose will often select the infinitive so we hear errors such as:
    *I dislike to do that
or they may settle on the -ing form as their sole choice and say:
    *I came for helping
There are some possible ways to help:

Aiding noticing of chunks:
Whenever a text is used, for whatever purpose, it is useful if learners can be helped to notice chunks of language which they can commit to memory and there are some obvious examples in the lists above:
    look forward to seeing
    beg to differ
    chance to meet
    happen to see

It is also worth taking the time to check whether a verb is catenative and what usually follows it.  That way, verbs which are followed by the to-infinitive can be taught with to included in the chunk so, instead of teaching
    arrange, choose, deserve, expect
as single words, teaching
    arrange to, choose to, deserve to, expect to
helps considerably.
This is similar to the ways in which one might approach phrasal and prepositional verbs.
The danger with this approach is, however, that many of these verbs are transitive and take a direct object so learning them as chunks can lead to error such as:
    *I arranged to a holiday
They may also be followed by a nominalised clause and, again, there is no place for to in such constructions and the approach my produce error, for example:
    *I expect to she will be there.
Awareness-raising of the rule of thumb
We saw above that the to-infinitive generally is prospective in nature so, for example:
    I want to go
    I intend to go
    I plan to go
    I arranged to go
    I determined to go
    I expected to go
    I hoped to go
    I forgot to go

all refer to the future after the main verb.
The -ing, gerund form, is often used with verbs that refer to past experience or to past events so, for example:
    I forget talking to her
    I regret upsetting her
    I deny taking it
    I dislike swimming
    I recall seeing the film

all refer to the speaker's past experience or to events that precede the main verb.
This is by no means an infallible rule and there are numerous exceptions but it takes some of the guessing out of the equation.
Awareness-raising of synonymy and antonymy
Verbs which are synonymous (or nearly so) or antonymous will often share characteristics regarding catenation so, for example:
    hate, love, like, loathe, enjoy, detest, adore
are all followed by the gerund
    intend, mean, plan, arrange, promise, swear, long, hope
    compel, command, instruct, force, order, encourage, forbid, permit
are all followed by the to-infinitive.
If a new verb is encountered and the meaning is similar to one already known, it is often helpful to know that it is likely to catenate in the same way.
Not being too technical
We saw above that true catenative verbs abut each other in sequences with no intervening object so while, e.g.:
    I compelled him to stay
is not, technically, catenative because the object breaks the chain
    He was compelled to stay
is catenative because the verbs follow in sequence.
However, for teaching purposes, whether there is an intervening object or not makes no difference to the basic structure of the clause and can be ignored.
Nevertheless, when an intervening object is involved, especially if it is a long one, we need to alert learners so that they can notice the basic structure in for example:
    She asked my brother, my two sisters and myself to come to her party.
    She can't stand the neighbours and their friends continually having parties.

Related guides
PDF document this is a downloadable file of the lists in this guide
infinitive: essentials a simple guide in the initial training section
infinitives a more detailed guide in the in-service section
finite and non-finite forms a guide to the difference
multi-word verbs for more about transitive and non-transitive uses of prepositional verbs
gerund and infinitive a basic guide in the initial plus section with some other teaching ideas and an example text

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
McLeod, D, n.d., Practising English, Ramsgate, UK: Home Language International