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Comparing Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives

Summary:

This handout provides a detailed overview (including descriptions and examples) of gerunds, participles, and infinitives.

Contributors:Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2010-10-14 03:37:58

Comparing Gerunds and Participles

Look at the following pair of sentences. In the first, the use of a gerund (functioning as a noun) allows the meaning to be expressed more precisely than in the second. In the first sentence the interrupting itself, a specific behavior, is precisely indicated as the cause of the speaker's irritation. In the second the cause of the irritation is identified less precisely as Bill, who just happens to have been interrupting. (In the second sentence, interrupting is actually a participle, not a gerund, since it functions as an adjective modifying Bill.)

I was irritated by Bill's constant interrupting.
I was irritated by Bill, constantly interrupting.

The same pattern is shown in these other example pairs below: in the first of each pair, a gerund (noun-function) is used; in the second, a participle (adjective-function). Notice the subtle change in meaning between the two sentences in each pair.

Examples:

The guitarist's finger-picking was extraordinary.
(The technique was extraordinary.)
The guitarist, finger-picking, was extraordinary.
(The person was extraordinary, demonstrating the technique.)

He was not impressed with their competing.
(The competing did not impress him.)
He was not impressed with them competing.
(They did not impress him as they competed.)

Grandpa enjoyed his grandchildren's running and laughing.
Grandpa enjoyed his grandchildren, running and laughing.* (Ambiguous: who is running and laughing?)

Comparing Gerunds and Infinitives

The difference in the form of gerunds and infinitives is quite clear just from comparing the following lists:

Their functions, however, overlap. Gerunds always function as nouns, but infinitives often also serve as nouns. Deciding which to use can be confusing in many situations, especially for people whose first language is not English.

Confusion between gerunds and infinitives occurs primarily in cases in which one or the other functions as the direct object in a sentence. In English some verbs take gerunds as verbal direct objects exclusively while other verbs take only infinitives and still others can take either. Many such verbs are listed below, organized according to which kind of verbal direct object they take.

Verbs that take only infinitives as verbal direct objects

agree decide expect hesitate
learn need promise neglect
hope want plan attempt
propose intend pretend

Examples:

I hope to go on a vacation soon.
(not: I hope going on a vacation soon.*)

He promised to go on a diet.
(not: He promised going on a diet. *)

They agreed to sign the treaty.
(not: They agreed signing the treaty.*)

Because she was nervous, she hesitated to speak.
(not: Because she was nervous, she hesitated speaking.*)

They will attempt to resuscitate the victim
(not: They will attempt resuscitating the victim.*)

Verbs that take only gerunds as verbal direct objects

deny risk delay consider
can't help keep give up be fond of
finish quit put off practice
postpone tolerate suggest stop (quit)
regret enjoy keep (on) dislike
admit avoid recall mind
miss detest appreciate recommend
get/be through get/be tired of get/be accustomed to get/be used to

Examples:

They always avoid drinking before driving.
(not: They always avoid to drink before driving.*)

I recall asking her that question.
(not: I recall to ask her that question.*)

She put off buying a new jacket.
(not: She put off to buy a new jacket.*)

Mr. Allen enjoys cooking.
(not: Mr. Allen enjoys to cook.*)

Charles keeps calling her.
(not: Charles keeps to call her.*)

Verbs that take gerunds or infinitives as verbal direct objects

start begin continue hate
prefer like love try
remember

Examples:

She has continued to work at the store.
She has continued working at the store.

They like to go to the movies.
They like going to the movies.

Brent started to walk home.
Brent started walking home.

Forget and remember

These two verbs change meaning depending on whether a gerund or infinitive is used as the object.

Examples:

Jack forgets to take out the cat.
(He regularly forgets.)
Jack forgets taking out the cat.
(He did it, but he doesn't remember now.)

Jack forgot to take out the cat.
(He never did it.)
Jack forgot taking out the cat.
(He did it, but he didn't remember sometime later.)

Jack remembers to take out the cat.
(He regularly remembers.)
Jack remembers taking out the cat.
(He did it, and he remembers now.)

Jack remembered to take out the cat.
(He did it.)
Jack remembered taking out the cat.
(He did it, and he remembered sometime later.)

In the second of each pair of example sentences above, the past progressive gerund form having taken can be used in place of taking to avoid any possible confusion.

Sense verbs that take an object plus a gerund or a simple verb

Certain sense verbs take an object followed by either a gerund or a simple verb (infinitive form minus the word to). With many of the verbs that follow the object, the use of the gerund indicates continuous action while the use of the simple verb indicates a one-time action. Still, sometimes the simple verb can indicate continuous action if one-time action wouldn't make sense in the context.

feel hear notice watch
see smell observe

Examples:

We watched him playing basketball. (continuous action)
We watched him play basketball. (continuous action)

I felt my heart pumping vigorously. (continuous action)
I felt my heart pump vigorously. (continuous action)

She saw them jumping on the bed. (continuous action)
She saw them jump on the bed. (one-time action)

Tom heard the victim shouting for help. (continuous action)
Tom heard the victim shout for help. (one-time action)

The detective noticed the suspect biting his nails. (continuous action)
The detective noticed the suspect bite his nails. (one-time action)

We could smell the pie baking in the kitchen. (continuous action)
We could smell the pie bake in the kitchen. (continuous action)

Sometimes the simple-verb version might seem unconventional, so it's safer in most cases to use the gerund version.

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