Gerunds and infinitives
Some main verbs take a following gerund or infinitive – with slight nuances in meaning and slight contextual differences in use. Others take only one, depending on how the action is conceptualized in the language. These may vary in different languages, but that does not mean that each language views the action in a completely different manner, but rather, it is a matter of how these actions are profiled differently – the nuances and aspects of the action that are highlighted more.
The choice of using a gerund or infinitive form of a verb may depend significantly on the particular word it modifies, or a particular grammatical construction. In other cases, they may be fully interchangeable, with only a slight difference in nuance. In a few cases, both are possible, with a difference in meaning.
- 1 Examples
- 2 Gerunds
- 3 Dependent infinitives
- 4 Purpose clauses
- 5 Interchangeable gerunds and infinitives
- 6 Significantly different gerund / infinitive meanings
- 7 Gerunds required by / modifying other words
- 8 Infinitive and gerund clauses
|verb + GERUND||verb + INFINITIVE||verb + either (with different nuances)|
Gerunds are traditionally treated as a type of noun, but modern syntacticians have differing views. Some regarded as a distinct mixed or in-between category with nominal and verbal features.
- Taking exams is a waste of time.
This exam is a waste of time.(From Huddleston, 1983)
|It can function as a subject/object||1a. Dancing is great fun.
1b. I like dancing
|It can be modified by an adjective||1c. I like slow dancing|
|It can co-occur with a possessive form||1d. Homer's dancing was ridiculous|
|It can be modified by an adverb||2a. I like dancing slowly|
|It can take a direct object||2b. Dancing the tango is great fun
2c. I like dancing the tango
Context matters, also. Below, writing is more verb-like, as (1) it is modified by the adverbial actually, and (2) it takes a direct object NP (noun phrase).
- Actually writing the email took only a few minutes
In the following, writing, is more noun-like, as (1) it is modified by an adjective and it is preceded a determiner, and (2) it is followed by a prepositional phrase (PP).
- The actual writing of the email took only a few minutes
In this example, the gerund shows both verbal and nominal qualities.
- They appreciate my visiting their parents regularly. (adapted from Greenbaum, 1992)
3 Dependent infinitives
The most common use for infinitives is the dependent infinitive after another verb, such as expressions of wishes, hopes, and intentions:
- I just want to play on my drums all day. I hope to become a great drummer like Van Halen. So I plan to practice all day.
Infinitives are in a sense tenseless or not time-bound like other verbs; they don't refer to actual events so much as they refer to potential events, possible events, or events that haven't happened yet. Thus, they are used after main verbs like those above. Because of this semantic nuance, they are somewhat more abstract or generic (general) in meaning than infinitives or other forms of verbs.
4 Purpose clauses
Infinitives are used with purpose clauses, in which case they are similar to in order to. (The phrase in order to puts more emphasis on the purpose, or distinguishes a purpose infinitive from normal infinitives.)
- He bought the car to impress his girlfriend. (in order to impress his girlfriend)
5 Interchangeable gerunds and infinitives
A gerund suggests an actual or real activity or experience that occurs (or would occur), while an infinitive implies a potential or possible activity or experience.
|I like speaking Chinese when I'm in Chinatown.||≈ I enjoy the experience of speaking in Chinese.|
|I like to speak Chinese when I'm in Chinatown.||≈ I enjoy the option / ability / possibility of speaking Chinese|
|I tried speaking Chinese while I was in Taiwan.||≈ I tried actually speaking it|
|I tried to speak Chinese while I was in Taiwan.||≈ I attempted it – depending on the context, this may imply that I wasn't successful in doing so|
|I like living in Europe.||Implies that I actually have done so|
|I like to live in Europe.||Implies that I haven't done so, but would like to do so|
In expressions like the following, they are interchangeable, with this sort of very slight nuance.
|can't bear||He can't bear being alone.||He can't bear to be alone.|
|can't stand||Nancy can't stand working the late shift.||Nancy can't stand to work the late shift.|
|cease||The government ceased providing free health care.||The government ceased to provide free health care.|
|continue||She continued talking.||She continued to talk.|
|hate||He hates cleaning dishes.||He hates to clean dishes.|
|like||Samantha likes reading.||Samantha likes to read.|
|love||We love scuba diving.||We love to scuba dive.|
|neglect||He neglected doing his daily chores.||He neglected to do his daily chores.|
|prefer||He prefers eating at 7 PM.||He prefers to eat at 7 PM.|
|propose||Drew proposed paying for the trip.||Drew proposed to pay for the trip.|
With these main verbs below, the choice between gerunds and infinitives depend on whether the dependent verb (the infinitive or gerund after the main verb, which depends on the main verb) has a subject. Expressing a subject with a gerund that is different from the subject of a main verb can be more wordy, or even awkward.
I advised seeing a doctor = I advised that they see a doctor; I advised them to see a doctor.
I advised their seeing a doctor: same meaning, but sounds awkward
|advise||I advised seeing a doctor.||I advised them to see a doctor.|
|allow||Ireland doesn't allow smoking in bars.||Ireland doesn't allow people to smoke in bars.|
|encourage||He encourages eating healthy foods.||He encourages his patients to eat healthy foods.|
|permit||California doesn't permit fishing without a fishing license.||California doesn't permit people to fish without a fishing license.|
|require||The certificate requires completing two courses.||The certificate requires students to complete two courses.|
|urge||They urge recycling bottles and paper.||They urge citizens to recycle bottles and paper.|
6 Significantly different gerund / infinitive meanings
With some main verbs, whether the following dependent verbal item is a gerund or infinitive changes the meaning altogether. For example, with the main verb stop, the type of following verbal item (which depends on the main verb) can have a very different meaning. With stop, the infinitive is a purpose infinitive (purpose clause, similar to in order to).
|I stopped to buy some coffee.||= I stopped in order to buy coffee.|
|I stopped buying coffee.||= I no longer buy coffee (I quit drinking it; or it's too expensive)|
|begin||She began singing. She began to sing.
When "begin" is used in non-continuous tenses, you can either use a gerund or an infinitive.
|She is beginning to sing.
When "begin" is used in continuous tenses, an infinitive is used.
|dread||She dreaded taking the test.
Usually "dread" is followed by a gerund.
|He dreaded to think of the consequences of his actions.
“Dread" is sometimes used with infinitives such as "think" or "consider." In the sentence above, "dreaded to think" means "did not want to think.”
|forget||She forgot reading the book when she was a kid.
When "forget" is used with a gerund, it means "to forget that you have done something." The sentence above means that she read the book when she was a kid, and that she has forgotten that fact.
|She forgot to pay the rent this month.
When "forget" is used with an infinitive, it means "to forget that you need to do something." The sentence above means that she forgot that she needed to pay the rent.
|keep||She kept talking.
“Keep" is normally used with a gerund to mean that you continue doing an action.
|The attackers kept hostages to prevent the police from entering.
“Keep" can also be used with an object followed by an infinitive, but then the infinitive takes on the meaning of "in order to..." In the sentence above, the attackers kept hostages in order to prevent the police from entering.
|need||The house needs cleaning.
When "need" is used with a gerund, it takes on a passive meaning (note: this may be considered more colloquial in style). The sentence above means "the house needs to be cleaned."
|He needs to call his boss. He needs him to call his boss.
“Need" is usually used with an infinitive or an object + an infinitive.
|regret||I regretted being late to the interview.
“Regret" is normally used with a gerund.
|We regret to inform you that your position at the company is being eliminated.
“Regret" is sometimes used with infinitives such as "to inform." In the sentence above, "We regret to inform you" means "We wish we did not have to tell you (bad news).”
|remember||I remember mentioning the meeting yesterday.
When "remember" is used with a gerund, it means "to remember that you have done something." The sentence above means that I mentioned the meeting, and that I remember the fact that I did that.
|He remembered to turn off the lights before he left.
When "remember" is used with an infinitive, it means "to remember that you need to do something." The sentence above means that he remembered that he needed to turn the lights off.
|start||Marge started talking really fast. Marge started to talk really fast.
When "start" is used in non-continuous tenses, you can either use a gerund or an infinitive.
|Marge is starting to talk really fast.
When "start" is used in continuous tenses, an infinitive is used.
“I started to learn Russian, but it was so much work that I finally quit the class.”
In other situations, an infinitive means that you did not complete or continue an action.
|stop||He stopped smoking for health reasons.
“Stop" is normally used with a gerund.
|He stopped to rest for a few minutes.
When "stop" is used with an infinitive, the infinitive takes on the meaning of "in order to." In the sentence above, he stopped in order to rest for a few minutes.
|try||She can't find a job. She tried looking in the paper, but there was nothing. She tried asking friends and family, but nobody knew of anything. She also tried going shop to shop, but nobody was hiring.
“Try + gerund" means to try or to experiment with different methods to see if something works. She tried eating the snake soup, but she didn't like it. "Try + gerund" is often used when you experiment with something, but you do not really like it or want to do it again.
|She tried to climb the tree, but she couldn't even get off the ground.
When you "try to do" something, you want to do it, but you do not succeed in actually doing it. In the sentence above, an infinitive is used because she cannot successfully climb the tree.
Try not to wake the baby when you get up tomorrow at 5 AM.
An infinitive is also used if you are asking someone to try something they may or may not be able to accomplish.
7 Gerunds required by / modifying other words
In the following cases, certain content words take gerunds to modify them.
7.1 Go + gerund
The main verb go can be followed by a gerund for referring to various activities.
|go boating||go kayaking||go skiing|
|go bowling||go mountain climbing||go skinny-dipping|
|go bungee jumping||go paragliding||go skydiving|
|go camping||go parasailing||go sledding|
|go canoeing||go rollerblading||go snorkeling|
|go climbing||go running||go snowboarding|
|go dancing||go sailing||go spearfishing|
|go fishing||go scuba diving||go surfing|
|go hiking||go shopping||go trekking|
|go horseback riding||go sightseeing||go water skiing|
|go hunting||go skateboarding||go window shopping|
|go jogging||go skating||go windsurfing|
7.2 Adjective + preposition + gerund
There are many adjectives that take a preposition and gerund to indicate a semantic relationship between the event or activity and the adjective; a few are listed below.
|accustomed to||He is accustomed to having his own office.|
|addicted to||She is addicted to watching TV.|
|afraid of||She is afraid of speaking in public.|
|anxious about||Norma is anxious about making the presentation.|
|bored of||I am bored of doing the same old job.|
|capable of||He is capable of winning a gold medal.|
|committed to||She is committed to improving her English.|
|concerned about||Nancy was concerned about being late.|
|content with||Tim is content with winning second place.|
|dedicated to||The organization is dedicated to ending poverty.|
|devoted to||The money will be devoted to protecting the environment.|
|disappointed with||Fiona was disappointed with coming in third place.|
|discouraged by||He was discouraged by not getting the job.|
|excited about||The researcher was excited about going to Africa.|
|famous for||That actor is famous for being extremely weird.|
|fond of||She is fond of having picnics.|
|frightened of||She is frightened of being alone at night.|
|guilty of||The banker was guilty of stealing money.|
|happy about||He was happy about winning the lottery.|
|interested in||She is interested in becoming a doctor.|
|involved in||He was involved in making the movie.|
|known for||She was known for causing problems.|
|opposed to||They are opposed to building a new road in the park.|
|proud of||He was proud of having completed the marathon.|
|remembered for||She is remembered for protecting mountain gorillas.|
|responsible for||He is responsible for causing the damage.|
|scared of||Tina is scared of being alone at night.|
|terrified of||The surfer is terrified of being attacked by a shark.|
|tired from||She is tired from working all day.|
|tired of||Margaret is tired of making dinner every night.|
|worried about||The hikers were worried about not having enough water.|
7.3 Noun + preposition + gerund
Some nouns follow a similar pattern; a few are listed below.
|addiction to||His addiction to surfing the Internet is a problem.|
|advantage of||He has the advantage of speaking English fluently.|
|anxiety about||Her anxiety about speaking in public caused her to lose the job.|
|belief in||His belief in not harming animals was something he learned from his mother.|
|credit for||She took credit for improving the filing system.|
|dedication to||His dedication to teaching was impressive.|
|delay in||The delay in processing the visa caused problems.|
|devotion to||His devotion to biking allowed him to win the competition.|
|disadvantage of||The disadvantage of flying is that you can't see the scenery along the way.|
|experience in||She has a great deal of experience in introducing new products to international markets.
With the noun "experience," sometimes a gerund is added without the preposition "in." "Experience introducing new products" would also be acceptable.
|fear of||His fear of flying made travel difficult.|
|fondness for||Her fondness for traveling led to her career in the travel industry.|
|habit of||His habit of smoking in restaurants caused many problems in California.|
|interest in||Her career as a pilot evolved out of her interest in flying.|
|knowledge of||Her knowledge of climbing helped her during the competition.|
|love of||His love of singing developed when he was a child.|
|memory of||Their memories of traveling in Africa will stay with them forever.|
|preference for||I think his preference for speaking his native language is natural.|
|process of||The process of painting such a large mural is more complicated than you might think.|
|reaction to||His reaction to winning the prize was quite funny.|
|reason for||The main reason for taking the course is to improve your language skills.|
|regret for||The criminal's regret for committing the crime did not convince the judge.|
|report on||The magazine's report on choosing the right car was not well researched.|
|reputation for||Her reputation for lying is well known.|
|responsibility for||His responsibility for completing the project on time was acknowledged by the company.|
|story about||I don't know if I believe his story about seeing a UFO.|
|talent for||His talent for learning languages was impressive.|
7.4 Gerunds as passives
Gerunds can also be used in passive forms, with being + past participle as a passive voice equivalent.
The dog enjoys being taught how to hunt.
The boy likes being taught Latin.
7.5 Infinitives required by / modifying other words
Some content words take infinitives to modify them.
7.5.1 (be + ) adjective + infinitive
The following adjectives take infinitives (these are only a few).
|be amazed||He was amazed to discover the truth.|
|be anxious||She was anxious to start her new job.|
|be ashamed||He was ashamed to admit he had lied.|
|be bound||She is bound to be elected class president.|
|be careful||They were careful not to reveal the winner of the prize until the end.|
|be certain||She is certain to get the job.|
|be content||The student was content to receive second place in the competition.|
|be delighted||We were delighted to be invited to the wedding.|
|be determined||He was determined to finish the marathon.|
|be eager||He was eager to begin.|
|be eligible||They were not eligible to participate in the program.|
|be fortunate||She was fortunate to receive the research grant.|
|be glad||I would be glad to help out.|
|be happy||She was happy to see them at the party.|
|be hesitant||Mary was hesitant to say anything.|
|be liable||The mountain climber is liable to hurt himself if he doesn't use well-made equipment.|
|be likely||They are likely to show up at any time.|
|be lucky||You were lucky to have such an opportunity.|
|be pleased||I am pleased to meet you.|
|be proud||He was proud to have been chosen to lead the project.|
|be ready||I'm ready to go now.|
|be reluctant||The witness was reluctant to reveal what he had seen.|
|be sad||She was really sad to leave.|
|be shocked||He was shocked to discover the truth.|
|be sorry||I am sorry to have to tell you that the tickets are sold out.|
|be surprised||She was surprised to discover that he had never learned how to swim.|
7.6 Noun + infinitive
Often, a noun can take an infinitive, where the infinitive serves as a descriptive phrase that serves a function similar to a relative clause in modifying the noun. The way construction is particularly common in colloquial English.
|advice||His advice to continue was good.|
|appeal||The appeal to reduce pollution was ineffective.|
|attempt||Her attempt to locate them was unsuccessful.|
|chance||In Britain, you will have a chance to improve your English.|
|decision||The decision to increase taxes was not popular.|
|desire||His desire to get a good job motivated him.|
|dream||Her dream to become an actress was never realized.|
|goal||His goal to run a marathon seemed unrealistic.|
|motivation||Her motivation to enter university impressed them.|
|need||Bob's need to be the center of attention was irritating.|
|opportunity||The opportunity to live in New York interested Sandra.|
|order||They followed the general's order to retreat.|
|permission||Permission to enter the area was difficult to get.|
|plan||Sandy's plan to move to Madrid bothered her parents.|
|preparation||NASA's preparations to launch on Monday moved forward.|
|proposal||Her proposal to host the party impressed the committee.|
|recommendation||His recommendation to close the school upset the community.|
|refusal||Debra's refusal to help did not go unnoticed.|
|reminder||Her reminder to review the vocabulary helped me pass the test.|
|request||Their request to participate was granted.|
|requirement||Their requirement to speak four languages was unreasonable.|
|suggestion||His suggestion to leave seemed like a good idea.|
|tendency||His tendency to tap his desk during a test annoyed me.|
|wish||Her wish to be treated normally was respected.|
|way||One way to improve your English is to read novels.|
Some nouns can take either a gerund or infinitive modifier, with only a slight difference in nuance, as discussed above.
- This is a common method to get rid of dust mites.
- This is a common method of getting rid of dust mites.
8 Infinitive and gerund clauses
8.1 Sentence roles
Infinitive clauses have nominal functions.
- Direct object
- 1a. KJ wants to run his own language school
- Subject complement
- 1b. KJ's aim is to run his own language school
- 1c. To run your own language school must be difficult
- Subject clause extraposed
- 1d. It must be difficult to run your own language school
The use of infinitives, base forms, and gerunds is somewhat problematic for linguists. For example, the base form (some call it a bare infinitive, as if it were a second type of infinitive) is permitted with some verbs and not others; some verbs prefer full infinitives, others prefer base forms. For example, write in 2a is a base form – a verbal complement with no to infinitive marker.
- 2a. The professor helped write his statement of purpose.
- 2b. He hopes to visit India one day
- 3a. KJ helped to write the article.
- 3b. KJ helped write the article.[help takes either a full infinitive or a base form]
- 4a. Jay hoped to write the article.
- 4b. *Jay hoped write the article. [hope only takes an infinitive]
8.2 The base form (bare infinitive)
A number of common "perception" verbs (see, watch, hear, feel, sense etc.) take a direct object and a bare infinitive:
- 5a. KJ saw/watched/heard/ the accident happen.
Several common verbs of permission or causation, including make, let, and have take a base form complement.
- 5b. The professor made/let/had Jin Young rewrite her term paper
8.3 The full infinitive
To-infinitives are typically used after intransitive verbs:
6: a. I agreed to leave
To-infinitives can also be used after many transitive verbs; in this case, the infinitive generally has the direct object of the main verb as its subject:
- 6b. The professor persuaded KJ to rewrite her paper.
8.3.1 Subjectless infinitives
Many infinitive clauses lack an overt subject
- 7. She hopes to impress the professor with her term paper.
8.3.2 Infinitives with subjects
Other constructions involve an overt subject in the infinitive clause
- 8a. The dean asked the professors to revise their course objectives.
- 8b. The dean asked them to revise their course objectives.
- 8c. *The dean asked they to revise their course objectives.
Some verbs prefer an infinitive complement without an overt subject
- 9a. Most students try to study hard
- 9b. KJ continued to study all night
- 9c. Ricardo planned to study later
- 9d. Jean preferred to study now
- 9e. George refused to study at all.
Some verbs prefer an infinitive complement with an overt subject
- 10a. Dr. Frankenstein taught me to analyze syntax.
- 10b. The professor allowed Maria to submit her paper late.
- 10c. Bert hired a man to cut the grass.
- 10d. All the students implored the professor to grade generously.
- 10e. He reminded everyone to turn in homework on time.
Some verbs take either pattern.
- 11a. Everyone expected Freeman to win an Oscar.
- 11b. Freeman expected to win an Oscar.
- 11c. She loves the students to practice Korean with her.
- 11d. She loves to practice Korean.
- 11e. I want you to rewrite this.
- 11f. I want to rewrite this.
Some main verbs work better if the subject of the infinitive clause is introduced by for, a marker of infinitival subjects.
- 12a. He intended for her to revise the syllabus.
- 12b. ? He intended her to revise the syllabus.
- 12c. *The travel agent arranged me to visit Cheju.
Whether particular semantic or syntactic criteria or patterns for use of for with certain verbs seems unclear.
8.3.3 Gerund clauses have nominal functions
- 13a. Natasha enjoys running her own language school
- 13b. Sun Hee's job is running her own language school
- 13c. Running your own language school is a great idea
8.4 Infinitives or -ing?
Infinitive complements are often associated with hypothetical and/or unfulfilled situations
- 14a. Raphael tried to go, but couldn't get the time off work.
Gerund complements are often associated with real, fulfilled situations
- 15. Raphael tried going, but didn't like it and left early
“Commitment" verbs generally take to-infinitive complements, either with or without subjects
- 16a. Sukki decided to leave.
- 16b. Maggie ordered her students to leave
Other verbs following this pattern:
- 17. allow, arrange, command, convince, hope, permit, persuade
Aspectual verbs (verbs that take a dependent verb to express special aspectual qualities, like beginning or ending an action) generally prefer gerund complements, but infinitive complements are possible.
- 18a. Natasha began/started working at dawn
- 18b. Natasha began/started to work at dawn
- 19a. Mirei continued/kept/remained working until lunchtime
- 19b. Mirei continued to work until lunchtime
- 19c. *Mirei kept/remained to work until lunchtime
- 20a. Homer ceased/finished working at five
- 20b. Homer ceased to work at five
- 20c. *Homer finished/ to work at five
Berk, L. M. (1999). English syntax. New York: Oxford University Press.
Greenbaum, S. (1992). Gerund. In T. McArthur (ed.), The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Huddleston, R. (1983). Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- This and other following tables are from www.englishpage.com. See also the OWL website handout on gerunds and infinitives, http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/01/.