Published 12th February 2018

Gerunds and Infinitives

Okay, let’s talk grammar for a minute. Grammar is one aspect of English which can be quite tricky for our English language learners – and for English as a foreign language teachers too! Especially if you are a native speaker, there are probably many different concepts and rules for English grammar that you are not familiar with. Even though you can speak the language without making any mistakes, you may not be entirely sure exactly why you say certain things but not others. Because we are English teachers, it is our job to find out exactly what we don’t know and make sure we know everything we need to know about them, so we can teach our learners. Gerunds and infinitives are always popular topics!

Read more: 5 Grammar Rules You Should Not be Teaching

So let’s do some grammar revision today, starting with gerunds and infinitives. 

Do you know the difference between a gerund and an infinitive? Do you even know what a gerund or an infinitive is? If you do, give yourself a pat on the back (but continue reading just to refresh your memory)! If not, have no fear, because in this post we’ll look at what exactly gerunds and infinitives are and how we use them in English so you can be confident when teaching this language point to your students.

AN ALTERNATIVE LESSON PLAN STRUCTURE

What is a gerund and an infinitive?

Have a look at this paragraph:

Pedro wanted to learn English to be able to chat to his English friends online. Communicating in English was important to him but he found it difficult to speak English. His friend recommended going to lessons so he decided to go to a language school in Madrid. Pedro enjoyed speaking English but didn’t like doing grammar exercises so he joined a conversation class. He practiced speaking English every day and soon he was very good at speaking English.

In this paragraph you will have noticed there are examples of the verb which use to – these are infinitives – and verbs which end in ing – these are gerunds.

As you might guess, gerunds can be confusing for English language learners because usually words which end in –ing are a part of a continuous tense – i.e. I am sitting; He is reading; They were running. But when it comes to gerunds, they are actually nouns, and they are the subject or the object of the sentence. 

Read more: Activities for Teaching the Present Continuous

All verbs except modal verbs have a gerund and infinitive form, which is why it can be quite challenging for our learners to know when to use which. However, there are a few general rules we can teach our learners to help them better understand the use of gerunds and infinitives. 

When do we use a gerund or an infinitive?

  • Gerunds can be the subject of a sentence

Communicating in English was important to him.

Here we want to use the verb communicate as the subject of the sentence. We cannot say Communicate in English was important or To communicate in English was important (well, we can but it sounds very formal). Instead we must use the gerund.

  • Infinitives are used after adjectives

…he found it difficult to speak English

Here the adjective is difficult so we use the infinitive to speak.

  • Gerunds are used after prepositions

…soon he was very good at speaking English.

After the preposition at we use the gerund speaking.

  • Infinitives are used for purpose

Pedro wanted to learn English to be able to chat to his English friends online.

Here the second infinitive to be able to is used because it answers the question Why?

  • After certain verbs we use…either the gerund or the infinitive

Pedro wanted to learn English

so he decided to go

Pedro enjoyed speaking English

His friend recommended going to

Ok, so this is a confusing one. When we use two verbs together, the first verb can dictate if the second verb will be in its infinitive or gerund form. Which one it is, depends on the verb. Unfortunately there are no rules to learn which verbs use the infinitive and which use the gerund; these need to be learnt by our learners. In these examples, the verbs which take the infinitive are: want, decide; and the verbs which take the gerund are: enjoy, recommend.

Other verbs which take the infinitive are:

agree

expect

hope

learn

plan

promise

Other verbs which take the gerund are:

admit

advise 

consider

recommend

suggest

Unfortunately, there are some verbs which can take either the gerund or the infinitive with no change in meaning, and there are some verbs which can take either the gerund or the infinitive with a change in meaning. 

Start is one which can take either with no change in meaning; for example:

It started to rain.

Vs

It started raining.

Stop, try, remember and forget can use either but there is a change in meaning; for example:

He stopped smoking.

Vs

He stopped to smoke.

He no longer smoked vs he stopped walking or talking to have a cigarette.

She tried going on a diet.

Vs

She tried to go on a diet.

She went on a diet as per a suggestion vs she attempted to go on a diet but it was difficult.

I remembered locking the door.

Vs

I remembered to lock the door.

I locked the door and remembered doing so later vs I had the foresight to lock the door when I left.

I forgot locking the door.

Vs

I forgot to lock the door.

I locked the door but couldn’t remember later if I had vs I did not remember to lock the door.

Though there are a few rules we can apply to know when to use gerunds or infinitives, it can still be a bit challenging for your learners. Now that you know exactly what they are and how we use them you should feel very comfortable teaching them in your EFL class. Make sure you introduce plenty of practice and production activities in your lessons and soon your learners should have no more problems using gerunds and infinitives correctly.