Author Topic: So which do we use: a gerund, a full infinitive, or a bare infinitive?  (Read 12534 times)

Joe Carillo

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For many nonnative speakers or learners of English, it’s difficult enough deciding whether to use a gerund or an infinitive for certain sentence constructions, but the problem becomes even more baffling when neither makes the sentence work properly or—at the very least—doesn’t make that sentence sound right. In such cases, in fact, lopping off the “to” from the full infinitive form to yield what’s called the bare infinitive becomes necessary to put the sentence on the right footing.

Such a grammatical dilemma was recently presented to me by an Iran-based English teacher, to analyze and resolve which I wrote a three-part essay for my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times. I am now posting all three parts in this week’s edition of the Forum for the benefit of all who still get similarly stumped by the gerund-infinitive conundrum. (February 2, 2014)

1 – The choice between the gerund and the infinitive

An English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., e-mailed me recently about his perplexity over the following sentences involving infinitives and gerunds:

“Please take a look at Sentences 1 and 2 below:

“(1) ‘Rather than drive to New York in the snow, we decided to stay home and watch the game on television.’
 
“(2) ‘Rather than running away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.’
 
“As you can see, in Sentence 1, after ‘rather than,’ the bare infinitive ‘drive’ is used, while in Sentence 2, an ‘-ing’ form of the verb is used. Why? I’m really confused. What do we need after the ‘rather than’—a bare infinitive or an ‘-ing’ form? How do we decide which one to use?”

My reply to Farhad:

Your question involves two grammatical aspects: whether to use an infinitive or gerund, and whether to use a full infinitive or bare infinitive.

For a better understanding of these grammatical forms, recall that infinitives and gerunds are both verbals, or words that combine the characteristics of a verb and a noun. As a rule, an infinitive has the form “to + verb stem,” as in “to watch” functioning as a noun, while a gerund is a form of the verb that ends in “-ing,” as in “watching” likewise functioning as a noun. (A third kind of verbal, the participle, combines the characteristics of a verb and an adjective—as in the participle “watched” in the sentence “A watched pot never boils.”)

                                 IMAGE CREDIT: YOUTUBE.COM VIDEO


Being functionally nouns, both infinitives and gerunds can be used as subject, object, or complement, but whether an infinitive or gerund will properly work as such is primarily determined by the operative verb of the sentence.

Take Sentence 1 above: “Rather than drive to New York in the snow, we decided to stay home and watch the game on television.”

Let’s put that sentence in its normal, straightforward form so we can analyze it better: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than drive to New York in the snow.” Here, it’s clear that the operative verb is “decided,” and that “to stay home and watch the game on television” and “drive to New York in the snow” are both infinitive phrases serving as its direct objects—meaning that they are acting as nouns receiving the action of the verb “decided.”

The difference between these two infinitive phrases, however, is that the first,  “to stay home and watch the game on television,” is a full infinitive phrase, while the second, “drive to New York in the snow,” is a bare infinitive phrase, having dropped the function word “to.” The sentence is none the worse for it, though, showing that the infinitive “to drive” can take its bare infinitive form in that sentence without messing up its grammar and syntax.

Now let’s see if that sentence will still work correctly if it uses the full infinitive “to drive” instead: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than to drive to New York in the snow.” The grammar and syntax of that sentence remain airtight, but I must hasten to add that this doesn’t hold true in all cases. Indeed, several other factors come into play on whether a full infinitive or bare infinitive will work in a sentence.

Before taking up that aspect, however, let’s find out first if we can replace the infinitive phrases in Sentence 1 with their corresponding gerund forms: “We decided staying home and watching the game on television rather than driving to New York in the snow.” This time the sentence no longer reads and sounds right—clearly indicating that “decide” as operative verb won’t accept gerund phrases as direct objects.

We will discuss the ground rules for choosing between infinitives and gerunds in the second part of this essay below.

2 – Ground rules for choosing between gerunds and infinitives   

Let’s continue our discussion on the choice between infinitives and gerunds and between full infinitives and bare infinitives in constructing sentences.

In the first part of this essay, we left off with the finding that the following sentence that uses infinitive phrases as direct object of the operative verb “decided” is grammatically airtight: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than to drive to New York in the snow.” However, when the infinitive phrases are replaced by their gerund phrase equivalents, the sentence no longer reads and sounds right: “We decided staying home and watching the game on television rather than driving to New York in the snow.”

The problem is that the verb “decide” won’t accept the gerund phrases as direct objects in that sentence. In English, it is the operative verb that determines whether an infinitive or gerund can serve as subject, object, or complement, and it does so following these four ground rules: 

1. Use the infinitive as subject when denoting potential, the gerund when denoting actuality or fact. Potential:To win will be great.” (“Winning will be great” works just as well, for “win” is one of those verbs that can take either the gerund or infinitive form to denote potential.) Actuality or fact:Winning made him ecstatic.” (The infinitive doesn’t work: “To win made him ecstatic.”)

2. Use the infinitive as complement or object when denoting future ideas and plans, the gerund when denoting acts done or ended. Infinitive for future ideas and plans: “Her ambition is to teach.” (But not, “Her ambition is teaching.”) Gerund for acts done or ended: “She picked teaching.” (But not, “She picked to teach.”)

3. Use the infinitive as complement for single or repeated action, the gerund for ongoing action. Single action: “I came here to study.” (But not, “I came here studying.”). Repeated action: “She goes there to rest.” (But not, “She goes there resting.”). Ongoing action: “He does selling on the side.” (But not, “He does to sell on the side.”).

4. Use the infinitive as object for a request, instruction, or causation; the gerund for attitude and unplanned action. Request: “He asked me to rehearse.” (But not, “He asked me rehearsing.”). Instruction: “She told me to wait.” (But not, “She told me waiting.”). Causation: “They forced him to abdicate.” (But not, “They forced him abdicating.”). Attitude: “He thinks sailing is risky.” (But not, “He thinks to sail is risky.”) Unplanned action: “He found dancing to his liking.” (But not, “He found to dance to his liking.”).

These ground rules provide us with a clearer conceptual framework for using infinitives or gerunds, but we must firmly keep in mind that the primary basis for the choice is the operative verb of the sentence. We have to get used to the fact that some operative verbs can take infinitives, others can take gerunds, and the rest can take both. Making the correct choice won’t be easy, but ultimately, it’s the one that makes the sentence read logically and sound right.

Now let’s go back to Sentence 2 as presented by Farhad H.: “Rather than running away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” He asked: Shouldn’t that sentence use the bare infinitive phrase “run away” instead?

That sentence obviously doesn’t read logically or sound right with the gerund phrase “running away,” but neither does it do so with the full infinitive phrase “to run away”: “Rather than to run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” However, it makes sense and reads perfectly well with the bare infinitive phrase “run away”: “Rather than run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” Why is that?

In the third and final part of this essay below, we’ll take up the rules for choosing between full infinitives and bare infinitives.

3 – Grammatical situations that require the bare infinitive

In the second part of this essay, we saw that the following sentence with the full infinitive phrase “to run away” doesn’t sound right: “Rather than to run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” However, it reads perfectly well when that full infinitive phrase is changed to its bare infinitive form: “Rather than run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.”

So the question is: Are there hard-and-fast rules for using the full infinitive or the bare infinitive? There are actually none; all that can really be said is that in general, the primary determining factor is the operative verb of the sentence. Indeed, we’ll only find out which of them works—or works best—by first using the full infinitive by default. When it doesn’t work, the bare infinitive form usually will—unless, as we saw in our previous discussions, it’s only the infinitive’s gerund equivalent that can do the job.

At this point, we can now categorically answer the original question of Iran-based Forum member Farhad H. that launched this discussion: It’s in the nature of English that when an infinitive or infinitive phrase is preceded by the adverbs “rather,” “better,” and “had better” or by the prepositions “except,” “but,” “save” (in the sense of “except”), and “than,” it’s highly advisable to use the bare infinitive in the sentence.

Let’s try out those specific instances that require the bare infinitive: “We would rather commute than drive at this hour.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We would rather to commute than to drive at this hour.”) “With the mess you’re in, you had better hire a lawyer.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “With the mess you’re in, you had better to hire a lawyer.”) “We tried everything except beg.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “We tried everything except to beg.”) “They did nothing but complain.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “They did nothing but to complain.”) 

As a rule, of course, the verb auxiliaries “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” and “must” should always be followed by a bare infinitive: “I shall scold them.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I shall to scold them.”) “We may go there tonight.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We may to go there tonight.”) “You must find her at once.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “You must to find her at once.”)

Now, when the operative verb is a perception verb like “see,” “feel,” “hear,” or “watch” and it’s followed by an object, the object complement should be in the bare infinitive form for the sentence to work properly: “We watched him perform the role and we saw him bungle it so badly.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We watched him to perform the role and we saw him to bungle it so badly.”) “I heard her scream at a fellow justice during a full session.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I heard her to scream at a fellow justice during a full session.”)

A bare infinitive is likewise needed as object complement when the operative verb is the helping verb “let” or “make” followed by an object: “Let me call you sweetheart.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “Let me to call you sweetheart.”) “She always makes me feel brand new.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “She always makes me to feel brand new.”)

The helping verb “help” itself, however, can take either a full infinitive or a bare infinitive as object complement. The sentence sounds formal with the full infinitive: “She helped them to mount the coup d’etat.” It’s relaxed, informal-sounding with the bare infinitive: “She helped them mount the coup d’etat.”

Always remember, though, that all of these uses of the bare infinitive should be treated as exceptions to the general rule. When in doubt, use the full infinitive first to see if the sentence will work properly.
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This three-part essay originally appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 11, 18, and 25, 2014 © 2014 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

FURTHER READINGS:
1. The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions
2. Can intransitive verbs take a gerund or infinitive phrase as direct object?
3. How infinitives and gerunds work in comparative sentences
« Last Edit: October 15, 2021, 06:42:37 PM by Joe Carillo »