Infinitives vs. Gerunds: When to Use Which

Both infinitives (to + verb) and gerunds (verb + -ing) can function as nouns in sentences. Here are three ways they are used differently:

  1. The infinitive is more formal and literary than a gerund as the subject of a sentence (To dream is easy), while the gerund sounds more natural in everyday usage (Dreaming is easy).
  2. Some verbs can take only the infinitive as object (I want to win); some can take only the gerund (I have finished eating). Other verbs can be followed by infinitives and gerunds interchangeably (I like to dance/dancing).
  3. The gerund is generally used as the object of a preposition (Thanks for coming).

Infinitive vs. gerund as subject

Both infinitives and gerunds can function as the subject of a sentence, just like nouns. (The subject is whom or what the sentence is about.) The infinitive form (to + verb) sounds more formal and literary than the gerund (verb + -ing), which is seen more often in everyday usage.

  • Infinitive: To travel is to broaden the mind.
    Gerund: Traveling broadens the mind.
  • Infinitive: To see is to believe.
    Gerund: Seeing is believing.
  • Infinitive: To be happy is a state of mind.
    Gerund: Being happy is a state of mind.

Here are some more examples from literature. Note the slightly solemn tone that the infinitive as subject lends to the sentence.

  • To want is to have a weakness.
    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985
  • To attack the first is not to assail the last.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847
  • To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning . . .
    Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, 1957

Infinitive vs. gerund as object of verb

Infinitives and gerunds can be used interchangeably as the object of some verbs, such as start, begin, continue, love, like, prefer, hate. (The object is what usually follows the verb in a sentence and is affected by it.)

  • Infinitive: Lulu started to sing.
    Gerund: Lulu started singing.
  • Infinitive: Tumkin began to dance.
    Gerund: Tumkin began dancing.
  • Infinitive: Anita continued to read.
    Gerund: Anita continued reading.
  • Infinitive: Nesbit loves to tinker with technology.
    Gerund: Nesbit loves tinkering with technology.
  • Infinitive: Maya and I like to drink tea.
    Gerund: Maya and I like drinking tea.
  • Infinitive: Rita prefers to drink beer than to sip on tea.
    Gerund: Rita prefers drinking beer to sipping on tea.

However, with some verbs, an infinitive can act as an object, but a gerund cannot. These include want, intend, plan, hope, agree, need, promise, claim, hesitate, learn, wish, neglect, expect, and prepare.

  • Farley wants finding/to find gold in the mountains.
  • Poco intends firing/ to fire all his employees today.
  • Nesbit plans buying/to buy a new laptop next month.
  • Tumkin hopes traveling/to travel to Fiji someday.
  • Lulu agreed meeting/to meet me at the party.
  • Anita needs adopting/to adopt another cat.
  • Maya promised buying/to buy me an island for my birthday.

In contrast, gerunds but not infinitives can act as the object of certain verbs, such as suggest, recommend, discuss, consider, finish, mention, risk, avoid, keep, delay, deny, recall, and resist.

  • Tumkin suggests punishing/to punish anyone who burns a book.
  • Poco recommends buying/to buy a new house in another city.
  • Anita and I discussed reorganizing/to reorganize the staff allocation.
  • Would you consider hiring/to hire Rita for the job?
  • Lulu has finished eating/to eat all the candy.
  • Nesbit mentioned seeing/to see strange lights in the sky.
  • Maya risks losing/to lose her reputation if she publishes this story.
  • Farley narrowly avoided crashing/to crash his car into the wall.
  • Poco keeps calling/to call me all day long.

Whether an infinitive or a gerund should be used as the object differs from one verb to another. When in doubt, refer to a learner’s dictionary (like Oxford or Britannica [Merriam-Webster]) that contains examples indicating whether to use the infinitive or the gerund with a verb.

Some verbs can mean different things when used with infinitives and with gerunds. Try and stop are two such verbs.

  • With infinitive: I’ll try to complete the report by tomorrow, but I can’t promise you anything.
    try + infinitive = attempt to do something difficult
    With gerund: Have you ever tried drinking tea instead of coffee?
    try + gerund = experiment with something new
  • With infinitive: We stopped to admire the view.
    stop + infinitive = cease moving
    With gerund: Stop talking!
    stop + gerund = cease doing something
    With gerund: I have stopped drinking coffee in the morning.
    stop + gerund = abandon a habit

Infinitive vs. gerund as object of preposition

While gerunds can act as the object of a preposition (in, on, of, from, for, into, etc.), infinitives usually cannot. (The object of a preposition is what follows it to form a prepositional phrase and is referenced or affected by the preposition.)

  • Can someone stop Farley from acting/to act the fool?
  • Poco is thinking of buying/to buy a new car.
  • Thanks for inviting/to invite me to your party.

Prepositions that are exceptions are except and but, which take an infinitive instead of a gerund as object.

  • Poco would not stop yelling except catching/to catch his breath.
  • Farley had no choice but eating/to eat the deadly berries.

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