The use of gerunds and infinitives in English can be somewhat problematic for foreign learners of the language, but there are some general rules that can help one determine when to use each form.

A gerund is a type of verbal noun that is formed from a verb, a verbal form of a word that functions as a noun in a sentence, and typically ends in -ing. This grammatical concept is not unique to the English language, it also exists in French, Italian, Spanish and German, to name a few, but the rules of usage vary according to each language.

There are some verbs that can be followed by a gerund or an infinitive with no difference in meaning, but there are certain verbs that can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive, but with a difference in meaning. The choice between a gerund and an infinitive can sometimes depend on the specific verb and the context of the sentence.

In the example below, the verb to love works with a gerund or an infinitive.

  • I love flying = Gerund
  • I love to fly = Infinitive

confusion over gerunds and infinitives: signs pointing in all directions

Gerunds

Gerunds are often used to talk about actions or activities in a general sense. Gerunds retain some qualities of verbs, such as the ability to take objects or be modified by adverbs. However, they function as nouns in terms of their role in the sentence.

  • Gerunds are formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb: swimming, reading.
  • Gerunds function as nouns in a sentence and can be used as subjects, objects or complements.
    • Running is my favourite sport = Subject (When a gerund is the subject of a sentence, it takes a singular verb.)
    • I enjoy reading books = Object
    • His passion is dancing = Complement
  • Gerunds are often used after prepositions:
    • She apologised for interrupting the meeting
    • I’m keen on wrestling
    • I’m interested in learning Spanish
  • Gerunds are used after certain verbs such as ‘enjoy’, ‘dislike’, ‘admit’, ‘suggest’ and ‘avoid’: I dislike dancing.
  • Gerunds can also follow verbs that indicate a sense of perception like ‘see’, ‘watch’, or ‘hear’: She saw him running.

Be aware that sometimes gerunds can be confused with present participles, which are verb forms used in verb tenses such as the present continuous; this is due to the shared -ing ending. The key distinction is that gerunds function as nouns, while present participles function as verb forms within a sentence.

Infinitives

In English grammar, an infinitive is the base form of a verb, typically preceded by the word ‘to’. It is called an infinitive because it is not inflected for tense, person or number. The infinitive form of a verb is often used to express the idea of an action or state, in a general or non-specific sense.

  • The word ‘to’ is used as an infinitive marker. It is placed before the base form of the verb:
    • to speak
    • to walk
    • to read
  • Infinitives can function as various parts of speech. They can act as nouns, adjectives or adverbs in a sentence:
    • To dance is her passion
    • He is eager to learn
    • She worked hard to succeed
  • Infinitives are commonly used after certain verbs, such as ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘decide’, ‘hope’, ‘plan’ and ‘promise’:
    • I want to go home
    • She decided to start a new job
  • Infinitives are used after most adjectives to describe or specify the qualities or desires associated with the adjective:
    • She was happy to see her friends
    • He is determined to succeed
  • Infinitives can follow certain nouns expressing purpose, ability or desire related to the noun:
    • She had the opportunity to travel
    • I have the ability to solve complex problems

Verbs with both gerund and infinitive forms

As previously stated, some verbs can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive with no change to the meaning, but other verbs can have their meaning altered by the choice of a gerund or an infinitive. So, the choice between a gerund and an infinitive can sometimes depend on the specific verb and the context of the sentence:

  • I stopped smoking = I quit the habit
  • I stopped to smoke = I paused in order to smoke
  • I stopped eating = I ceased eating
  • I stopped to eat = I stopped whatever else I was doing to eat something
  • I remember calling her last night = I recall that I made a phone call to her last night
  • I remembered to call her last night = I did not forget to make a phone call to her last night
  • I forgot locking the door = I don’t remember whether I locked the door
  • I forgot to lock the door = I intended to lock the door but failed to do so
  • She regretted saying those hurtful words = She feels remorse for having said something
  • She regretted to inform him about the accident = She feels sorry that she had to inform him about the accident
  • I tried opening the jar, but it was too tight = I attempted to open the jar, but it was too tight
  • I tried to open the jar, but it was impossible = I made an effort to open the jar, but it was impossible
  • She began studying French last year = She started the activity of studying French last year
  • She began to study French last year = She started the process of learning French last year

Take comfort, these verbs exemplified above: to stop, to remember, to forget, to begin, etc., are representative of only a small number of verbs that have this effect on the gerund/infinitive.

Exceptions

The verbs ‘to let’ (with the meaning to allow) and ‘to make’ (with the meaning to cause to happen) are not followed by a gerund and are followed by an infinitive that appears without ‘to’:

  • They made us clean the floor
  • She let me drive the car

Conclusion

A number of verbs are listed in this post that prefer either the infinitive or gerund form, but the key to gerunds and infinitives in the English language is not an easy one. Listening and reading in abundance is the best answer. Saturating oneself in a language and learning to speak and write it as a native means being exposed to the language constantly so that one develops a natural sense of what is correct and what is incorrect.

The fact is that there are many exceptions and variations in the use of gerunds and infinitives, and sometimes the choice between a gerund and an infinitive can depend on the specific verb and the context of the sentence.

If you have any questions or comments, please do enter them below.

Have a go at the exercises provided and see how many gerunds and infinitives you already intuitively know:

Exercises to practise

1
Created on By Michelle
Portrait of Student

Gerunds and Infinitives

1 / 12

I will let her ----------- her friend

2 / 12

Have you finished…......... now

3 / 12

The money enabled us …….. up our own business

4 / 12

They made us -------- the floor.

5 / 12

I catch my dog --------- biscuits all the time.

6 / 12

​I can’t imagine John --------- to a nightclub.

7 / 12

​I persuaded Dad ---------- me a lift to the airport.

8 / 12

They advised us ---------- plenty of water.  ​

9 / 12

They still deny ---------anything wrong

10 / 12

We practised ------- the ropes

11 / 12

They promised not---------the keys

12 / 12

He offered -------- me a drink

Your score is

The average score is 100%

0%

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Börjars, Kersti, and others. Introducing English Grammar, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2010)

Burton-Roberts, Noel. Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax, 4th edn (Routledge, 2016)

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Penguin Random House, 2020)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

2 Comments

  1. Hey there! Thanks for sharing this informative post about gerunds and infinitives. It’s definitely a tricky aspect of English grammar for non-native speakers, but your explanations and examples make it much easier to understand. I appreciate how you highlighted the differences in usage and provided some common verbs that can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive, but with different meanings.

    I have a question though: Are there any other verbs besides the ones mentioned that have different meanings when used with a gerund or an infinitive? I’d love to expand my knowledge on this topic. Keep up the great work and looking forward to more helpful grammar tips!

    • Hi Israel, thanks so much for your comment. 

      First of all, congratulations on reaching this point in your English learning; your writing is excellent. 

      Secondly, in response to your question:

      The other verbs I know of (off the top of my head) are: to go on, to quit, to need and to mean

      For example, I mean to say the truth = My intention is to say the truth     vs

      I mean saying the truth = I mean, saying the truth is the right thing to do – that is my meaning!

      See if you can come up with some examples for the other three if you like!

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