Author Topic: How infinitives and gerunds work in comparative sentences  (Read 7197 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
How infinitives and gerunds work in comparative sentences
« on: April 07, 2013, 10:41:26 AM »
Question e-mailed by FH from Iran (April 2, 2013):

I have a question: Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.
 
“A teacher can receive no greater gift than ________ she or he has had a positive influence and has been helpful to someone else.”
 
(a) to know
(b) knowing
(c) know
 
Thank you for taking the time to help me.

My reply to FH:

April 7, 2013

Dear FH,

I’m doing quite well, thanks!

Answer choice (c) “know” is definitely wrong. Both (a) “to know” and (b) “knowing” are possible answers from a grammar standpoint, but I think the semantically and idiomatically correct answer is “to know.” This is because the infinitive phrase “to know” somehow gives the sense that the subject—in this case the “teacher”—still hasn't received or doesn’t possess yet the gift being referred to, a situation that matches the sense of possibility denoted by the modal “can.” In contrast, the gerund phrase “knowing” gives the sense that the subject is already in possession or has already received such a gift—a situation that doesn’t seem to logically match the modality of “can.”

It would seem to me that the gerund “knowing” might work in, say, a present-perfect sentence like this one: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than knowing I have had a positive influence and has been helpful to someone else.” Still, the semantics of the gerund “knowing” seems odd or askew in such constructions because “knowing” denotes a continuing state or permanent condition. In contrast, the one-time action denoted by the gerund “discovering” might work in such constructions: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than discovering I have had a positive influence and have been helpful to someone else.” Even better is the semantics of this sentence that uses the gerund phrase “receiving the compliment”: “As a teacher, I’ve received no greater gift than receiving the compliment that I have had a positive influence and have been helpful to someone else.”

What these examples is telling us is that some verbs lend themselves semantically well to taking the infinitive form, while others don’t and could only take the gerund form to work properly in certain sentence constructions.

I hope this explanation helps clarify the usage for you.

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo
« Last Edit: April 10, 2013, 11:38:27 PM by Joe Carillo »