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:
- Playing basketball takes up too much of her time.
- To play basketball for UConn is her favorite fantasy.
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:
- Her favorite fantasy is to play basketball for UConn.
The gerund can also play this role:
- Her favorite fantasy is playing basketball for UConn.
Both of these verbal forms can further identify a noun when they play the role of Noun Complement and Appositive:
- Her desire to play basketball for UConn became an obsession.
- I could never understand her desire to play basketball for UConn.
- Her one burning desire in life, playing basketball for UConn, seemed a goal within reach.
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, herpermission 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.)
- She was hesitant to tell the coach of her plan.
- She was reluctant to tell her parents, also.
- But she would not have been content to play high school ball forever.
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:
- She wrote a newspaper article about dealing with college recruiters.
- She thanked her coach for helping her to deal with the pressure.
Two prepositions, except and but, will sometimes take an infinitive.
- The committee had no choice except to elect Frogbellow chairperson.
- What is left for us but to pack up our belongings and leave?
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.
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). Welove running. They began farming the land. These are described, also, below.
|Choice or Intent|
|Initiation, Completion, Incompletion|
|Request and Promise|
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 allwanted to go. They promised to be home early.
Gerunds accompany a form of the verb to go in many idiomatic expressions: Let’s go shopping. We went jogging yesterday. She goes bowlingevery 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|
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.
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.
- We watched him clear the table.
- They heard the thief crash through the door.
- She made me do it.
- We helped her finish the homework.
Using Possessives with Gerunds
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 modified by other words, use the common form of that noun, not the possessive.
- Federico was pleased by Carlos’s making the Dean’s List for the first time.
- Federico was pleased by Carlos, his oldest son, making the Dean’s List for the first time.
When the noun preceding the gerund is plural, collective, or abstract, use the common form of that noun, not the possessive.
- Professor Villa was amazed by her students working as hard as they did.
- The class working collaboratively was somebody else’s idea.
- It was a case of old age getting the better of them.
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.
- I was shocked by somebody’s making that remark.
This would be greatly improved by saying, instead . . .
- I was shocked that somebody would make that remark.
This is also true when the “owner” of the gerund comes wrapped in a noun phrase:
- I was thankful for the guy next door shoveling snow from my driveway.