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(Originally posted September 24, 2010.)
Gerunds* and infinitives** and how to use them may be one of the most confusing and frustrating parts of English for non-native speakers. (My students HATE the gerunds and infinitives quizzes I give them, which is why I give them so often.) More and more, even native speakers are making mistakes, but not for the same reason. (Non-native speakers have to work really hard to learn English well enough to make these mistakes. Non-native speakers have to be extra lazy to make them.)
One of the most common places to find gerunds and infinitives in English is in the object position, after the main verb. For example:
- I enjoy reading historical novels.
- We plan to go snorkeling next weekend.
- I promised to buy a bigger diamond for my wife on our fifth anniversary.
- Doctors recommend sleeping at least seven hours a night.
With each of these main verbs, you have no choice. Enjoy and recommend must be followed by a gerund. Plan and promise must be followed by an infinitive.
There is another group of verbs that can be followed by either the gerund or the infinitive form of the verb. For example:
- It started to rain an hour ago. / It started raining an hour ago.
- I will continue to study Spanish next year / I will continue studying Spanish next year.
- Japanese people prefer to take baths at night. / Americans prefer taking showers in the morning.
In all of these examples, either sentence is ok and both sentences have the same meaning. However, sometimes either the gerund or the infinitive is better depending on the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence. For example:
- It is starting to rain.
- It is starting raining.
To me, the first choice is correct but the second choice is not because the gerund-gerund construction sounds weird. In the sentence The children are practicing writing in cursive, the gerund-gerund construction is unavoidable (sort of) because practice can only be followed by a gerund and you must use practicing because it is the continuous tense. However, with starting, you have a choice, so don’t put two gerunds together. (I would eliminate writing to avoid the weird construction. The children are practicing cursive.) Here is another example of a weird structure you should try to avoid if possible.
- It is going to start to rain in a minute.
- It is going to start raining in a minute.
In this case, the sentence with to rain is a poor choice because the main verb, start, is also following to. (However, to start is not an infinitive. Is going to is a helping verb that is basically the same as will.) The second choice, to start raining, is much better. A good general rule of thumb is “avoid repetition whenever possible.” (Unless, of course, there’s a good reason to be repetitive. Ain’t English fun?)
There is a small group of verbs that can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive, but the meaning changes depending on which you use, which is the main point of this post. (Finally, huh?) I will explain each one in more detail.
Like to do or Like doing?
In reality, the difference between the two is small enough that I generally say “Don’t worry about it.” You can use either form and nobody would really care. However, if you really want to be accurate, here’s the difference.
- ‘I really like to swim in the ocean.
- I really like swimming in the ocean.
In this case, the second choice, swimming, is better because in this situation, like means enjoy. The chance to swim in the ocean is something I get excited about. Since enjoy must be followed by a gerund, it is better to use the gerund form when you are talking about a fun activity. On the other hand:
- Most Americans like to take a shower in the morning.
- Most Americans like taking a shower in the morning.
In this situation, the first choice, to take, is better because like means prefer. I don’t jump up and down in anticipation of my morning shower. I don’t go to bed dreaming about it. However, if you give me a choice, taking a shower in the morning is preferred. I just don’t feel right if I don’t.
If you were in my class taking a test, I wouldn’t care either way. I don’t think about this when I write or speak. In the immortal words of Gus Portokalos in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, “There you go.” The next pairs, on the other hand, you do need to pay attention to.
Remember/Forget to do or Remember/Forget doing?
One of these means I’m going to get into trouble. The other means I have had a great experience.
- I forgot to do my homework.
- I will never forget watching the sun rise from the top of Mt. Fuji.
If there was something important you were supposed to do, but it slipped your mind, you forgot to do it. When my wife reminds me to go to the store, she will say “Don’t forget to buy diapers for Skyler.” When I get home, she will ask me “Did you remember to call your mother on her birthday?” The infinitive is usually used in everyday situations. Forgot to do is usually preceded by “Oops.”
On the other hand, I’ve been very lucky to have had many wonderful experiences in my life. For example:
- I remember riding an elephant through the hill country of northern Thailand.
- I will never forget shaking Jimmy Carter’s hand or meeting my wife for the first time.
The older I get, the more I look back on my life using gerunds.
Try to do or Try doing?
If I want to get ahead on my homework by finishing my research paper a week early, I would say:
- I will try to finish my research paper by Monday.
Maybe I will successfully get stuff done early, but maybe I will be lazy and not do anything after all. (Probably the second one.) If my friend wants me to call him on Friday evening, but I think I might be out late, I would say to him:
- I will try to call you tonight.
Try to do means you want to do something, but you might not be able to. Try to do means you are not sure you will be able to keep a promise. Tried to do in the past tense is very often misused by non-native speakers. For example, a second-language learner might say:
- I tried to get a part-time job last summer.
By adding tried, what they really say is they failed. They couldn’t get a job. What they should say is:
- I got a part-time job last summer.
Keep it short, sweet and factual.
On the other hand, if there is something you’ve always thought about doing, but have never done, you would say:
- I would love to try skydiving.
Or if you did something for the first time on a really fun trip, you could say:
- I tried snowboarding for the first time in New Zealand.
Try doing is used for experiments, for something you are doing for the first time. If you are cooking a difficult dish for the first time, you will try making it. It can also be added to a suggestion. If you want to exercise your brain, you should try learning a foreign language. Success or failure depends on a gerund or an infinitive.
Stop to do or Stop doing?
Many grammar books say that the verb stop has two object patterns, to do and doing. However, I disagree. When you use a verb as an object after stop, you must use the gerund doing.
The following sentences describe something I would say to my students during a test, something I did because I got old and something my mother said to me quite often when I was young.
- Stop talking!
- I stopped playing rugby.
- Stop hitting your brother!
When an activity is finished, you stop doing it. The following sentences describe what happened while I was driving to the North Shore, something that happened while I was writing this blog and something my father had to do frequently while we were driving from Pennsylvania to Texas. (Good Lord, those were long trips.)
- I stopped to admire the gigantic waves.
- I stopped to change a stinky diaper.
- He stopped to yell at my brother and me because we were fighting.
Stop to do explains why you interrupted what you were doing in the first place. Why did you stop? This is actually an infinitive of purpose. You could add in order in front of the gerund. If you need to add a noun, you need a prepositional phrase with for. You could replace the infinitive with an adverb clause with because. For all these reasons, the infinitive is not the object.
- The game stopped (in order) to tend to an injured player.
- The game stopped for the trainer to tend to an injured player.
- The game stopped because a player got injured.
Regret to do or Regret doing?
Everyone has done stupid things that they wish they hadn’t done. Unfortunately, I have probably done more stupid things than most people. For example:
- I regret not asking Denise Brown out when I was in tenth grade. (Man, I was an idiot.)
- I regret spending so much money in Roppongi on weekends.
- I regret buying a laser disk player.
I just hope my wife never regrets marrying me. Regret to do is much less common and is usually used with the verbs inform or tell. It is used when you have to tell someone bad news.
- I regret to inform you that your credit card was declined.
- I regret to tell you that you will have to repeat this course in summer school.
Just like hitting a backhand or making a free-throw, it will take some practice and some concentration, and you will fail sometimes, but over time, you will fail less and less and you will learn to use these patterns correctly.
*To make a gerund you add ~ing to the base form of a main verb. Sometimes you need to double the last consonant (CVC), and sometimes you need to drop the final “e”.
- fishing / jumping / thinking
- running / getting / planning
- taking / smiling / biting
**To make an infinitive you simply put to in front of the base form of the verb.
- to fish / to run / to smile