In this grammar article, we explore the key differences between gerunds and infinitives - what they are, when and how to use them. Test yourself on your knowledge with our interactive quizzes.
What is a gerund?
A gerund is created with a verb and 'ing' and is sometimes called an '-ing form'. It usually behaves like a noun in a sentence.
- I like swimming.
- Reading is my favourite hobby.
- He's in the habit of not doing his homework (this is negative gerund that is also a clause).
However, not every -ing form is a gerund. For example, in the phrase 'she is swimming', the -ing form is used to form the present continuous tense (Subject + To be + Verb-ing). This use of the ing form is sometimes called the 'present participle'.
What is an infinitive?
An infinitive is another verb form that we create with 'to' and the base form of a verb - for example, 'to be', 'to go' and 'to eat'. The infinitive with 'to' is sometimes called the 'full infinitive'.
- He plans to move to New York next year.
- She managed to complete all her work.
- They failed to get a good deal.
(NOTE: Sometimes we just use the base form of the verb without 'to'. We call this the 'bare infinitive'.)
When should we use gerunds or infinitives?
This question is one that you'll learn gradually as you build your English skills over time. There are a few rules that you can learn to help you remember these more quickly.
When to use gerunds
1. After prepositions:
- you should give up smoking
- he is thinking of getting a new job
- she's really keen on playing tennis
- you can improve your English by reading regularly
2. As the subject of a sentence:
- giving is more enjoyable than receiving
- giving our customers a fantastic experience is just what we do
- watching more experienced workmates is a great way to learn
3. As the object of a sentence:
- I love working here
- the funniest thing of evening was seeing his face as he opened his leaving gift
4. After certain verbs (see below)
When to use full infinitives
1. To show purpose:
- he's gone out to get some office supplies
- she has someone come in every week to clean the office
2. After certain verbs (see below)
When to use bare infinitives
1. After modal verbs
- You should take a break
- He won't want to do that
- She can't wait any longer
2. After certain verbs (help, let and make)
- I can't make him do anything
- She helped him organise his files.
- Don't let them leave without paying!
Verbs that can only be used with gerunds or can only be used with infinitives
Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of these and learners often struggle to remember.
However, you'll notice that many verbs with related meanings can be grouped together. As you continue to learn new verbs, take note of whether they are followed by a gerund or infinitive and try to add them to one of the groups below (or create a new group).
Take your time to get familiar with them and look out for them in your reading and listening. Try your best to use them correctly in your own speaking and writing.
Eventually, only one form will feel right.
VERBS + GERUNDS
VERBS + INFINITIVES
Verbs that can be used with gerunds and infinitives (with no change in meaning)
There are a number of verbs where you can probably use either the gerund or infinitive without much difference in meaning - for example: begin, continue, start, like, don't like, prefer
- John started working for Microsoft five years ago
- John started to work for Microsoft five years ago.
- Mary likes working on challenging projects
- Mary likes to work on challenging projects
Now, you'll notice that 'like' and 'don't like' appear in our Verb + Gerund list above. Verbs like these are usually presented in the Gerund lists in grammar books because it is more common to hear them used with gerunds than infinitives.
Verbs that can be used with gerunds and infinitives (with differences in meaning)
The verbs stop, remember/forget and try have different meanings when you use a gerund or an infinitive with them.
Luckily, there are some common rules you can try and remember to help you decide:
RULE 1: verb + gerund
- The gerund action happens first
- The verb action happens second
RULE 2: verb + infinitive
- The verb action happens first
- The infinitive action happens second
- stop + gerund
- After ten years, Fred finally stopped smoking.
(action 1 - Fred smoked, action 2 - Fred stopped)
- stop + infinitive
- As she was walking to work, Eve stopped to tie up her shoelaces.
(action 1 - Eve stopped, action 2 - Eve tied up)
- remember/forget + gerund
- Stacy remembered meeting Joe a few weeks ago.
(action 1 - Stacy met Joe, action 2 - Stacy remembered)
- remember/forget + infinitive
- Stephen forgot to bring his computer to work. He left it at home again!
(action 1 - Stephen forgot, action 2 - Stephen didn't bring)
RULE 1: verb + gerund
- The gerund action represents a solution to a problem
RULE 2: verb + infinitive
- The infinitive action represents an attempt
- try + gerund
- They couldn't fix the printer themselves, so they tried calling an engineer.
(solution - calling an engineer)
- try + infinitive
- They tried to fix the printer themselves, but failed.
(attempt - to fix)
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