Published 22nd December 2015

Last Updated on

In English, verbs are used to describe an action or a state. Verbs can cause difficulties as they need to be manipulated in order to convey tense and person, and they can also be irregular. Sometimes, verbs can be used together and this can also be problematic for English learners. In other words, two verbs can be used consecutively and the difficulty here lies in the fact that the first verb will dictate the form of the second verb.

This can be understood better with a few examples:

(a) I want to go to the cinema tonight.

(b) I enjoy sleeping late on Sundays.

In the first example, the two verbs are want and go. This example illustrates that if a verb comes after want, it will be in the infinitive form with to. In the second example, however, the first verb is enjoy and the second dependent verb is the gerund form (-ing form) of sleep.

Unluckily for any learners of English, there are no rules for the form of the dependent verb. Instead, they just need to be learnt.

Verbs which take the infinitive include: want, hope, decide, agree, plan, would like.

Verbs which take the gerund include: enjoy, hate, finish, mind, suggest, recommend.

Then, just to make it more confusing, there are verbs which can take either the infinitive or the gerund. Sometimes this changes the meaning of the verb and sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s look at two more examples:

(c) Then it started to rain.

Then it started raining.

(d) He stopped smoking.

He stopped to smoke a cigarette.

Here, in (c), the verb start can take either the infinitive or the gerund form of the second verb without any change in the meaning. Essentially, the two sentences in (c) have the same meaning. The verb stop, though, can take the infinitive or the gerund, with a change in meaning. He stopped smoking means that he no longer smokes; it is the end of an action or a habit. He stopped to smoke means that he discontinued an action to perform another action i.e. smoking a cigarette. In other words, in these examples, there are two different actions which are stopping, and that is the difference in meaning between the use of the infinitive and the gerund.

Verbs which can take either the gerund or the infinitive without a change in meaning include: start, begin, continue. Verbs which can take either the gerund or the infinitive with a change in meaning include: stop, remember, forget.

As there are no hard and fast rules which govern the use of infinitives or gerunds, it is important to give your EFL learners lots of examples and situations for them to practise. This is the only way they will be able to become familiar with the correct usage of the verbs.