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Concourse 2

Gerunds and infinitives: the essentials

I enjoy gardening and I want to try to grow those

First, some definitions:

  1. A gerund
    Simply put, a gerund is a verb acting as a noun.  The example above includes I enjoy gardening and the gerund is gardening.
    For example, in:
        I enjoy reading
    The word reading is a gerund, and it acts as a noun object for the verb enjoy.  Compare, for example:
        I enjoy books
    in which the object of the verb enjoy is now a recognisable plural noun.
    Gerunds act like nouns but they also have some obviously verb-like characteristics.  So, for example:
    1. They take direct objects, just like verbs so we can have, e.g.:
          I enjoy reading detective novels

      where the gerund, reading, has a direct object, detective novels, just like many other verbs.
    2. We can also use an adverb to modify a gerund (not an adjective as would be the case if it were a pure noun) so we allow, for example:
          I enjoy strolling aimlessly around the town
      where the word aimlessly is an adverb modifying the gerund strolling.
  2. A verbal noun
    Verbal nouns often look like gerunds, and they often perform the same function in a clause, acting as nouns.
    However, a verbal noun is a noun derived from a verb, not a form of a verb as such.  This means:
    1. They cannot take a a direct object so we do not allow, e.g.:
          *The painting the village was beautiful
      because, although painting looks like a verb or a gerund, we cannot add the object to it because it is a noun.  This means it has to be treated as a noun and modified with a prepositional phrase as in:
          The painting of the village was beautiful
    2. They are modified by adjectives, not adverbs so we do not allow, e.g.:
          *The beautifully painting
      but need to use an adjective and have:
          The beautiful painting
    3. They can be made plural as in e.g.:
          There were lots of paintings of the village
      and we cannot to that with a gerund so we do not allow:
          *I do a lot of walkings
    It is also the case that verbal nouns are not always formed by adding -ing to the verb stem so we can also have, e.g.:
        refuse → refusal
        describe → description
        furnish → furniture

    Gerunds, on the other hand, always end with -ing.
  3. An infinitive
    Also simply put, an infinitive in English is the base form of the verb and it can also act as the object of another verb.  In the example above there are two infinitives: to try and to grow.  Infinitives in English can appear with and without to before them, so, for example:
        I prefer to wait
        She can go
    both contain infinitives.  In the first case we call it the to-infinitive and in the second, the bare infinitive.
    There is more on the use of the infinitive linked from the list of related guides at the end.


So, what's the problem?

The issue in English is fourfold:

  1. In English, the bare infinitive takes the same form as the verb operating as a finite form.  For example, in both:
        We work in London
        You should work harder
    the function of the verb work is indistinguishable by looking at its form.  In many languages that would not be the case because there would be an ending on the verb to show the person and the number.  This does happen in English but the system is greatly reduced and only the third-person singular carries an ending as in, e.g.:
        He works in London
        He should work harder
  2. We saw above that the infinitive in English can take two forms and that is a slightly unusual phenomenon.  It is not always a simple matter to select the to-infinitive or the bare infinitive.  We have, for example:
        I let him go
    which contains the bare infinitive following the verb let and we also have a parallel structure:
        I permitted him to go
    which carries more or less the same meaning but contains the to-infinitive.
    In many languages (at least those that have an infinitive form of some kind) only one form is possible.  This leads to errors such as:
        *I can to do it
        *I ought go
        *She will to be there

  3. The gerund form in English looks exactly the same as something called the present participle and that can be confusing sometimes for learners.  For example, in:
        She is reading
        She enjoys reading
    the form of reading looks the same but in the first sentence, it is functioning as a verb and in the second as a noun (albeit a noun with verb-like characteristics as we saw at the beginning).
  4. The final issue, with which this guide is mostly concerned, is that verbs in English can be followed by either the infinitive or the gerund.  The technical terms is that verbs colligate with one form of the other and it is not always easy to decide which form to use.  For example, it is not obvious why:
        I promised to drive
        I enjoy driving
    are correct, while
        *I promised driving
        *I enjoy to drive
    are not.
    The problem is compounded by the fact that, in many languages, only one verb form is permissible in this kind of construction so learners may select the one they are most comfortable with, often the infinitive, and use it indiscriminately.

There's a bit more on some of this below.


What follows the verb?

Some verbs are followed by a gerund, some by an infinitive (the base form of the verb with to before it).

The technical term for verbs operating like this in chains is catenation (from the Latin for a chain).  There is a much fuller guide to catenation in the in-service section of the site (linked below in the list of related guides).
If you would like the PDF document concerning catenative verbs which includes considerations of to-infinitives and gerunds following verbs, click here.

Here are some examples:

I want to help to clear up He offered to clear up They expected to have a problem I hate flying I would like to go now
They chose to do it They regretted doing it We stopped them working Remind me to post the letter I'm regret going

write or think Can you categorise the following verbs?  Put them all in a sentence in your head and decide whether they are followed by the to-infinitive (e.g., to go) or the gerund (e.g., going).  Then see if you can find a pattern.  Click when you've done that.
advise aim deny allow avoid promise instruct beg build threaten
teach enjoy resume forbid permit persuade detest promise suggest encourage
arrange begin finish miss invite ask challenge admit hope force

You can see the rule working clearly with the class of verbs which take either the gerund or the infinitive but with a change of meaning.
    He remembered to post the letter
in which the remembering comes before the posting with
    He remembered posting the letter
in which the posting comes before the remembering.
The verb forget works similarly:
    I forgot to tell him
in which the forgetting came before the non-event of telling him
    I forgot telling him
in which the telling occurred but was later forgotten.
And the verb regret also has the same characteristics:
    They regretted telling me
in which regretting comes after telling
    They regretted to tell me.
in which regretting comes immediately before telling.

Although not to do with the ordering of events, the verb try changes its meaning when followed by an infinitive or a gerund:
    I tried taking an aspirin
means I experimented with this as a cure, but
    I tried to take an aspirin
means I attempted to take an aspirin (and probably failed).

If you would like a single document with the two tables above combined, one is available here.


Breaking the 'rule'

Some verbs do not conform to the two patterns set out above.  In that sense they break the rule but it is, in any case, only a rule of thumb.
These verbs include two which should, if the rule is followed, take a gerund because they refer back in some way, but are usually followed by an infinitive: claim, deserve.
The following verbs usually take a gerund although the rule above would suggest they should take an infinitive because they refer forward: avoid, consider, contemplate, defer, delay, escape, evade, (can't) help, keep on, postpone, put off, resist, risk.

flying saucer

Is it a verb, an adjective or a noun?

There is a problem in English which makes life quite difficult for learners, and, alas, a number of teachers.  It is this:
The -ing form of a verb in English signals four possible grammatical functions.
Here is what is meant:

  1. A verb acting as a noun (a gerund)
    This is what we have considered so far and here are some more examples:
    • She enjoys running
      in which running is the object of the verb enjoys and could be replaced, for example, by a more recognisable noun such as chocolate or her garden etc.
    • I objected to his criticising me
      in which it is less easy to replace the -ing form with a simple noun because it clearly has an object (me) so we will have to rephrase the whole sentence as something like:
      I objected to his criticism of me
  2. A verb form which signals that something is in progress or a continuous event
    This is an example of aspect in English, usually called continuous or progressive.  The -ing form here is called the present participle but it often appears with past tenses.  A better term would be an -ing participle.  For example:
    • The professor was writing a letter when the 'phone rang
      in which the verb form (was writing) suggests that this was an an action in progress when the telephone rang and interrupted him
    • I am taking the bus to work these days
      in which it is clear that the speaker is not actually on a bus (probably) but is referring to a continuous background event which is probably, not certainly, temporary
    • I am seeing Mary tomorrow
      in which the speaker is using the same sort of tense form to talk about a current arrangement for a future event
  3. A verb acting as an adjective
    This is derived from the continuous or progressive -ing participle to describe an object or person.  For example:
    • Mary is extremely irritating
      which could be rephrased as
      Mary irritates people habitually
    • It's a frightening film
      which means The film frightens people
    • It's part of the aging process
      in which the adjective describes the process just as something more adjective-like, such as, mechanical could be used instead.
  4. A verbal noun
    Verbal nouns are unlike gerunds in that they have lost all verb-like qualities.  They do not take objects (direct or otherwise), they can be made plural in the normal way of nouns and they are modified by adjectives, not adverbs.  Many are formed by the addition of the -ing suffix but there are other ways to form nouns from verbs (as in the last two of these examples).  Here are some examples:
        The old master paintings were stolen from the gallery
        The buildings are complete
        The discovery of a new entrance was a surprise
        Her flat refusal took everyone by surprise

In this guide, we are concerned with whether we use a gerund or an infinitive after certain verbs but it is important for teachers to be clear whether we are actually dealing with a gerund or some other use of the -ing form of the verb.
To check that you can do this, try a little test.


Teaching this area

When it comes to teaching, of course, it is very important that learners are alert to the patterns so we need to set the language in a context.  Here's an example of the sort of text one might use to get students to notice the forms and perhaps work out the pattern for themselves with a little help.  With a group at B1 or B2 level getting them to notice the words in italics and try to see what they have in common would be a good place to start.


I was talking with an old friend last night and we discussed missing our oldest friends from university.  We both regretted losing touch and not seeing them for so long.  We have both always enjoyed being in their company and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine.
We decided to do something about the situation and resolved to get in touch with as many as we could.  To this end, my friend promised to look on the internet to see if any of them are on Facebook and I undertook to check with the university to see if they have records we could use.  I don't expect them to give out details but they might agree to provide me with a list of names and contact details.
If we manage to get a list together we have some ideas for things to do.  First off, we want to invite everyone to meet up somewhere nice (perhaps for coffee or a drink in the evening) and then we'd like to make it some kind of regular event so that we can all stay in touch and spend hours remembering studying and socializing together.
Eventually, we want to establish our own website for the group where we can exchange ideas and so on.

Related guides
tense and aspect for more on progressive and continuous aspects of verbs
aspect for a more technical guide to aspect in the in-service section
the infinitive for an essential guide to how (else) English uses the infinitive, with and without to
participles for more on present participles and more
finite and non-finite verb forms for a more technical guide to this area and much else
catenative verbs for a more technical and comprehensive guide in the in-service section
student exercises if you want to see some student exercises in this area (and perhaps incorporate them into a lesson)