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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!