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Completing your verbs—infinitive and gerunds

Most of us have been told at some point that a sentence has a subject and predicate and that the predicate consists of a verb and an object—the girl kicked the ball. We may have been introduced to distinctions such as transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs (like carry, snore, and become, respectively). But there is much more to the intricacies of what must follow a verb.

Linguists sometimes talk about the valency of a verb, meaning its ability to combine with other sorts of grammatical and semantic elements in a predicate. We find, for example, bitransitive verbs (like the teacher baked the children some cookies), object complement verbs (like the employees called the boss Mr. Burns), and reflexive verbs (like the witness perjured herself). Some verbs (like explain) allow their direct objects to be noun clauses but not infinitives, other verbs (like try) allow infinitives but not noun clauses.

We explained that we would be right on time.

We tried to use a new recipe.

And some verbs (like promise) allow both noun clauses and infinitives.

We promised that we would buy eggs.

We promised to buy eggs.

General dictionaries offer clues to valency by giving example sentences.  More specialized reference works, like A. S. Hornby’s 1975 Guide to Patterns and Usage in English, delineate pretty much the full range of verbs. Hornby distinguishes more than twenty-five different ways that verbs can be completed.

To me, one of the most intriguing patterns involves the distinction between gerunds and infinitives as direct objects. Some verbs, like want, agree, arrange, claim, decide, and refuse, allow infinitives to follow but not gerunds.

We wanted to spend more time at the coast.

He agreed to visit every week.

Other verbs, like enjoy, acknowledge, admit, anticipate, and avoid, take gerunds but not infinitives.

We enjoyed visiting the museums.

She acknowledged receiving the letter.

Different verbs, different patterns. But why do certain verbs prefer gerunds but others infinitives?  Sometimes the different behavior can be linked to grammar, as when a preposition is involved. We find gerunds but not infinitives after prepositions:

She succeeded in solving the problem.

I forgot about going to the play.

On the other hand, when a verb has an indirect object, the infinitive is usually (but not always) required:

We asked her to reconsider.

He convinced them to drop the charges.

Grammatical distinctions are tougher to uncover with verbs that permit both an infinitive and a gerund.  There are whole books written on the topic, such as Thomas Egan’s study 2008 Non-Finite Complementation: A Usage-Based Study of Infinitive and -ing Clauses in English. But if you are trying to wrap your head about the quirky complementation of verbs, a place to begin is with the verb remember, which allows both an infinitive and a gerund.

We remembered to buy eggs.

We remembered buying eggs.

With remember to buy eggs, the time frame of the egg-buying is understood as something still hypothetical at the time of remembering. With remembered buying eggs, the time focuses on the recollection of past egg-buying. Infinitives often convey a sense of potential activity (remembering to do something), while gerunds may refer to actions (remembering having done something).

It’s not quite a perfect test, however. The contrast between infinitives and gerunds in the following examples is not apparent, the distinction between hypothetical activity and simultaneous action merging to virtual synonymy.

He loved to think about verbs.

He loved thinking about verbs.

Not all grammatical puzzles are easily solved.

Featured image credit: Focus definition. Photo by Romain Vignes. CC0 via Unsplash.

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