Infinitives and Gerunds: How to Use Correctly

Summary

The form of the infinitive is to + verb, while that of the gerund is verb + -ing. Both infinitives and gerunds can function as nouns. Here are the main differences between how they are used:

1. The infinitive can sound more formal than a gerund as the subject of a sentence.

Example
  • Infinitive as subject: To complain would be silly.
    Gerund as subject: Complaining would be silly.

2. Infinitives and gerunds can also act as objects of verbs. Some verbs take gerunds and infinitives interchangeably. Others can take only infinitives, while still others can take only gerunds.

Examples
  • Infinitive or gerund, either: She likes to run/running.
  • Infinitive only: He wants to leave/leaving.
  • Gerund only: Have they finished to eat/eating?

3. The gerund is generally used as the object of a preposition, except with the prepositions except and but, which always take the infinitive.

Examples
  • Gerund only: Thanks for believing in me.
  • but
  • Infinitive only: I had no choice but to accept his offer.

4. The infinitive, not the gerund, is used as a direct object after an indirect object.

Example
  • Life teaches you to accept others as they are.

Infinitives and gerunds

Like a noun, an infinitive, which is the basic form of a verb (e.g., to dance, to read), can function as the subject or the object in a sentence. So can a gerund, which is a verb form ending in -ing (dancing, reading).

Examples
  • Infinitive as subject: To dance is all he wants.
  • Infinitive as object: She likes to read.
  • Gerund as subject: Dancing is his passion.
  • Gerund as object: She likes reading science fiction.

Since both infinitives and gerunds can replace nouns in sentences, they are sometimes interchangeable, but not always. In this article, we discuss whether to use an infinitive or a gerund in a sentence.

Slight difference in tone

As the subject of a sentence, an infinitive sounds more formal and literary than a gerund.

Example
  • Infinitive: To be born is both a blessing and a curse.
    versus
    Gerund: Being born is both a blessing and a curse.

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

Examples
  • “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. 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
  • To want is to have a weakness.”
    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985

No difference in meaning or tone

Infinitives and gerunds can be used interchangeably as the object of some verbs, such as start, begin, continue, love, like, prefer, hate.

Examples
  • 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 likes to drink tea.
    Gerund: Maya likes drinking tea.
  • Infinitive: Rita prefers to drink beer than to sip on tea.
    Gerund: Rita prefers drinking beer to sipping on tea.

Change in meaning

Some verbs can mean different things when used with infinitives and with gerunds.

When try is used with an infinitive, it means “to attempt to do something difficult.” But when try is used with a gerund, it conveys the meaning of “experimenting with something new.”

Example
  • With infinitive: I’ll try to complete the report by tomorrow, but I can’t promise you anything.
    With gerund: Have you ever tried drinking tea instead of coffee?

Stop is another such verb. With an infinitive, it implies a cessation of movement. With a gerund, stop is used to talk about ceasing to do something. It can also mean that a habit has been abandoned.

Example
  • With infinitive: On the way up the mountain, we stopped to admire the view.
    With gerund: Stop talking!
    With gerund: I’ve finally stopped worrying about the future.

Verbs that take only infinitives

With some verbs, an infinitive can act as an object, but a gerund cannot.

Examples
  • 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.

Other such verbs include claim, hesitate, learn, wish, neglect, expect, and prepare.

Verbs that take only gerunds

Gerunds, but not infinitives, can act as the object of certain verbs.

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

Other verbs that take gerunds as objects include delay, deny, recall, and resist.

After prepositions

While gerunds can act as the object of a preposition (in, on, of, from, for, into), infinitives usually cannot.

Examples
  • 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.

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

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

After indirect objects

Infinitives (or infinitive phrases) can be direct objects that follow indirect objects of verbs.

Example
  • My mother taught me to read.
    Subject
    My mother
    Verb
    taught
    Indirect object (who was affected?)
    me
    Direct object (what was taught?)
    to read (an infinitive)

Here are some more examples.

Examples
  • Lulu asked me to sing a song.
  • Poco told Farley to submit the report immediately.
  • Nesbit warned me to wear a sweater in Iceland.
  • The police have ordered the protestors to disperse.

Usage guide

Whether an infinitive or a gerund should be used as the object differs from one verb to another. Familiarity with the language helps, which is why native speakers reflexively choose the right option. When in doubt, refer to a learner’s dictionary (like Oxford or Merriam Webster) that contains examples indicating whether to use the infinitive or the gerund with a verb.

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Did You Know?

Either is or are can be used with the word data (the data is conclusive or the data are conclusive).
Know more:Data Is or Are: Is Data Singular or Plural?