Both gerunds and infinitives can be nouns, which means they can do just about anything that a noun can do. Although they name things, like other nouns, they normally name activities rather than people or objects. Here are five noun-uses of gerunds and infinitives (and one additional non-noun use, the adjective complement, that we throw in here, free of charge).
Gerunds and infintives can both function as the subject of a sentence:
It is not impossible for an infinitive to appear at the beginning of a sentence as the subject (as in Ib), but it is more common for an infinitive to appear as a Subject Complement:
The gerund can also play this role:
Both of these verbal forms can further identify a noun when they play the role of Noun Complement and Appositive:
The infinitive is often a complement used to help define an abstract noun. Here is a very partial list of abstract nouns, enough to suggest their nature. Try following these adjectives with an infinitive phrase (their desire to play in the championship game, a motivation to pass all their courses, her permission to stay up late, a gentle reminder to do your work) to see how the phrase modifies and focuses the noun.
Infinitive phrases often follow certain adjectives. When this happens, the infinitive is said to play the role of Adjective Complement. (This is not a noun function, but we will include it here nonetheless.)
Here is a list of adjectives that you will often find in such constructions.
Although we do not find many infinitives in this next category, it is not uncommon to find gerunds taking on the role of Object of a Preposition:
And, finally, both gerunds and infinitives can act as a Direct Object:
Here, however, all kinds of decisions have to be made, and some of these decisions will seem quite arbitrary. The next section is about making the choice between gerund and infinitive forms as direct object.
Verbs that take other verb forms as objects are called catenatives (from a word that means to link, as in a chain). Catenatives can be found at the head of a series of linked constructions, as in "We agreed to try to decide to stop eating between meals." Catenatives are also characterized by their tendency to describe mental processes and resolutions. (Kolln)
Although it is seldom a serious problem for native English speakers, deciding whether to use a gerund or an infinitive after a verb can be perplexing among students for whom English is a second language. Why do we decide to run, but we would never decide running? On the other hand, we might avoid running, but we would not avoid to run. And finally, we might like running and would also like to run. It is clear that some verbs take gerunds, some verbs take infinitives, and some verbs take either. The following tables of verbs should help you understand the various options that regulate our choice of infinitive or gerund.
|Some students may find it convenient to have a list of verbs that take infinitives, verbs that take gerunds, verbs that take eitherwithout the lists being broken into verb categories as they are below. Click the button to see such a list.
We also make available a chart of 81 verbs that take gerunds and infinitives along with pop-up examples of their usage. Click HERE for that chart.
The verbs in the table below will be followed by an infinitive. We decided to leave. He manages, somehow, to win. It is threatening to rain. Notice that many, but not all, of these verbs suggest a potential event.
Some of the verbs in the following table may be followed by a gerund if they are describing an "actual, vivid or fulfilled action" (Frodesen). We love running. They began farming the land. These are described, also, below.
Choice or Intent agree
Initiation, Completion, Incompletion begin
Mental Process forget
learn remember Request and Promise demand
seem tend Miscellaneous afford
The verbs in the next table will often be followed by an infinitive, but they will also be accompanied by a second object. We asked the intruders to leave quietly. They taught the children to swim. The teacher convinced his students to try harder.
The verbs in blue, with an asterisk, can also follow the same pattern as the verbs in the table above (i.e., the second object is optional). We all wanted to go. They promised to be home early.
train Causing allow
Gerunds accompany a form of the verb to go in many idiomatic expressions: Let's go shopping. We went jogging yesterday. She goes bowling every Friday night.
The following verbs will be followed by a gerund. Did I mention reading that novel last summer? I recommend leaving while we can. I have quit smoking These verbs tend to describe actual events.
Initiation, Completion and Incompletion anticipate
Continuing Action continue
Mental Process anticipate
The verbs in the following table can be followed by either an infinitive or a gerund, and there will be virtually no difference in the meaning of the two sentences. I like to play basketball in the park. I like playing basketball in the park.
The verbs in this next, very small table can be followed by either an infinitive or a gerund, but there will be a difference in meaning. I stopped smoking means something quite different, for instance, from I stopped to smoke. The infinitive form will usually describe a potential action.
forget remember stop
Finally, the verbs below will be followed by either a gerund or a simple verb and a second subject will be required. I saw the team losing its composure. I overheard my landlord discussing a rent increase. (I heard Bill sing/singing.) These verbs involve the senses.
Verbs Involving Senses
Verbs of perception hear, see, watch and a handful of other verbs help, let, and make will take what is called the bare infinitive, an infinitive without the particle "to." This is true of these verbs only in the active voice.
Do we say "I can't stand him singing in the shower," or do we say "I can't stand his singing in the shower"? Well, you have to decide what you find objectionable: is it him, the fact that he is singing in the shower, or is it the singing that is being done by him that you can't stand? Chances are, it's the latter, it's the singing that belongs to him that bugs you. So we would say, "I can't stand his singing in the shower."
On the other hand, do we say "I noticed your standing in the alley last night"? Probably not, because it's not the action that we noticed; it's the person. So we'd say and write, instead, "I noticed you standing in the alley last night." Usually, however, when a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund, that noun or pronoun takes a possessive form. This is especially true of formal, academic writing.
There are exceptions to this. (What would the study of language be without exceptions?)
When the noun preceding the gerund is plural, collective, or abstract, use the common form of that noun, not the possessive.
There are certain situations in which the possessive and the gerund create an awkward combination. This seems to be particularly true when indefinite pronouns are involved.
This is also true when the "owner" of the gerund comes wrapped in a noun phrase:
The categories of verbs in the tables on this page have been adopted from Grammar Dimensions: Form Meaning, and Use. Jan Frodesen & Janet Eyring. 2nd Ed. Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997.
The information on catenatives is adopted from Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.
Mary Nell Sorensen, at the University of Washington, has a considerable online document on the forms and uses of infinitives and gerunds.