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Gerunds & Infinitives: Helpful Teaching Tips

February 21, 2013

I like teaching and I like to teach…

Gerunds (the ‑ing form of a verb) and infinitives (to + the base form of a verb) are strange little creatures. They combine the action meaning of the verb with the grammatical function of a noun. They are useful because they allow us to use verbs as subjects and objects. But in the object position, the choice of gerund or infinitive can seem quite arbitrary. Also, because they have so many positions in a sentence, they can be confusing for students to learn. Fear not! There are some sentence patterns that ensure the correct choice of a gerund or an infinitive.

Gerunds

1. as the subject of a sentence

S = Ger

This position commonly calls for a gerund. While an infinitive is also possible, it is very formal and not common.

  • Shopping is my favourite hobby.
  • Working out has really improved my health.

2. following a preposition

Prep + Ger

Here is another common gerund position. This rule applies to all prepositions, including ones that are part of phrasal verbs.

  • She thought about calling him, but decided she wouldn’t.
  • They are planning on going to the party tonight.

3. as the object of a verb

V + Ger

This is the one position where both gerunds and infinitives are commonly used. The choice of which to use all depends on the verb. Some common ones are: advise, avoid, enjoy, finish, practise, quit, and suggest.

  • He enjoyed learning about gerunds.
  • My teacher suggested studying for the upcoming quiz.
Note

Don’t forget that some verbs take either a gerund or an infinitive with no change in meaning. While students don’t have to worry about these verbs, they should still be pointed out. Some common verbs are: like, love, and hate.

  • I love eating pasta.
  • I love to eat pasta.

Infinitives

1. following an adjective

Adj + Inf

Though it is possible in some cases to use a gerund after an adjective, it is more common to use an infinitive, making it the better choice for students.

  • It is nice to meet you.
  • She mentioned that it was dangerous to stand near that machine.

2. following a noun or pronoun

N + Inf

If the verb has an object that is a noun or a pronoun, it is almost always followed by an infinitive. This makes it easy for students to choose the correct form.

  • You asked me to call you.
  • The doctor advised Mark to eat more vegetables. (Note that the verb “advise” normally takes a gerund, as in “The doctor advised eating more vegetables.” But because there is a noun object in this sentence, we must use the infinitive. The noun rule supersedes the verb rule, which is great news for students.)

3. as the object of a verb

V + Inf

This is the one position where both gerunds and infinitives are commonly used. It all depends on the verb. Some common ones are: ask, choose, decide, get, need, plan, promise, and want.

  • They want to get their tests back as soon as possible.
  • The students are planning to have a party this Friday.
Note

ESL Library’s new and improved gerund and infinitive lessons are coming soon. In those lessons, we put verbs into categories to help students figure out whether to use a gerund or an infinitive. Also, googling “gerunds and infinitives verb list” brings up several lists that students can use for reference.

One final teaching point

Because both gerunds and infinitives retain their verb meanings (even though they function as nouns), they too can have objects. That means it’s not uncommon to see a sentence with two or more objects when gerunds or infinitives are in play. For example:

  • I enjoy studying English. (“studying” is the direct object of “enjoy,” and “English” is the direct object of “studying”)
  • My boss asked me to help her. (“me” is the direct object of “asked,” “to help” is also the direct object of “asked,” and “her” is the direct object of “to help”)

I hope you liked learning/to learn about this grammar point!

Tanya

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Comments (50)

Dana P.(Teacher)

Thank you for this post it was very helpful!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear it!

wawan (Guest)

thanks tanya, may I ask u something? if you teach them Gerund & Infinitive, what will you do as a lead-in?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Wawan,

That's a good question. I often keep it simple, and start out by asking students about their likes and dislikes. I make sure to use both gerunds and infinitives so that students naturally respond using both.

For example, I'll ask student A, 'What kind of movies do you like to watch?', and student A will probably respond using an infinitive: 'I like to watch romantic comedies.' Then I'll ask student B, 'What about you? Do you like watching romantic comedies, too?', and student B will probably respond using a gerund: 'No, I like watching action movies.' After talking to several students, I'll point out the grammar they were using and start the gerunds & infinitives lesson. Make sure you ask Wh-questions and not Yes/No questions so that students have to use the grammar naturally in their responses.

Another activity I've often done as a warm-up is to cut up a bunch of paper slips and write verbs that take either a gerund or an infinitive on them. Students can get into groups, and take turns picking up a verb and saying whether they think it should be followed by a gerund or an infinitive. You can make it into a game (whoever has the most slips of paper in the end, wins). Be aware that you'll need to monitor the groups to make sure they're giving the correct answers (or else you can write the answers on the back of the slips of paper). If this is your students' very first introduction to gerunds & infinitives, this activity is better as a review.

Hope this helps!
Tanya :)

Chaya (Guest)

How about including a quiz at the end of these teaching worksheets?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Another good idea! Thanks, Chaya. I know it takes a lot of time for teachers to make their own quizzes. I hope there are quizzes for every section one day. In the meantime, since there are many exercises in the Grammar Practice Worksheet lessons, you could always keep one page/exercise back from the students and give it to them the next day as a quiz.

Tara Benwell(Author)

Great explanation, Tanya! I really liked Wawan's question and think we should explore this more for future grammar-based ESL-library materials and teaching guides.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Good idea! Maybe we could have a section called 'Grammar Warm-Ups.'

Anna (Guest)

Tanya,
Great stuff, by the way. You've got some wonderful knowledge and present it very clearly. Just in relation to your point N + inf and the noun rule superseding the verb rule. What do you make of the sentence: 'I can't imagine Jeremy doing anything like that!' In this case, Jeremy follows imagine and it still uses the gerund. I'm thinking that there are probably a list of words that are going to be used with the gerund regardless of the a pronoun or noun. What do you think? Is this an exhaustive list that you know of? Or does it just keep on giving?
Anna

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Anna,

Thanks for your comments! Unfortunately for our students, there are always exceptions to every rule. One that I often point out is with 'spend/waste time'. The rule of 'N + Inf' doesn't apply here, either. E.g., I spent a lot of time cleaning my room. / She wasted two hours watching TV. I hadn't heard of the verb 'imagine' being an exception before, so thanks for pointing that out!

I wish there were a complete list of exceptions to this rule, but I've never seen one. If teachers keep listing exceptions they know of here, maybe we'll end up with a good list!

Tanya

patrick (Guest)

how would you teach the form '(be) going to + infinitive used for future plans to a pre-intermediate class.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Patrick,

Good question! First of all, I would tell my students that this was not a case where an infinitive verb is used. Tell them to think of it as 'be going to + base verb' (not as 'be going + infinitive').

I recently blogged about how to teach all three forms of the simple future (will + base verb, be going to + base verb, and be + -ing verb). http://www.esl-library.com/blog/2013/09/05/simple-future-teaching-the-three-forms/

In that post, I explained how I would present and explain the different uses to students, and I gave some examples and included some fun activities. Hope that helps! :)

Faye Duke(Guest)

Brilliant. The clearest explanation I have been able to find! Thanks!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you, Faye!

hamza (Guest)

thank you very much Tanya you really helped me

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Hamza! Thanks for your comment.

Kassie Kay(Guest)

Thanks for the tips! I've been having a hard time teaching this to my students. I keep telling them, 'practice! practice! It will come!' But they really like rules!

Again, thanks.

http://www.kassiekay.com

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Kassie! I agree, students love rules and formulas. Too bad there isn't a good rule for point #3, Verb + Ger/Inf. At least there are a few rules for the other parts of speech!

You've got a great website, by the way!

anahita (Guest)

i know boring, exciting,thrilling are adjs but are day gerund?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Good question, Anahita. Boring, exciting, and thrilling are indeed participial adjectives, but they are not gerunds. Adjectives will always be describing a noun, but gerunds will not (because they ARE the nouns). Keep in mind that gerunds are usually actions, whereas adjectives are not.

For example:
- I watched a boring movie. (correct, boring is an adjective because it describes the noun movie)
- The movie was boring. (correct, boring is an adjective because it describes the noun movie)
- I watched boring. (incorrect, boring is not a noun/gerund)

  • I went skiing. (correct, skiing is a noun/gerund in the object position)
  • Skiing is fun. (correct, skiing is a noun/gerund in the subject position)
  • I went skiing mountain. (incorrect, skiing is not an adjective describing the noun mountain)
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