Language Lab

Gerund or infinitive: How do I know what comes next?

One of the most common questions I get asked as a teacher is about gerunds and infinitives. Some verbs are usually followed by a gerund, for example “I enjoy playing football,” others are usually followed by an infinitive with ‘to’ “I want to play football this weekend,” and then there are some (often modal verbs) that are followed by an infinitive without ‘to’ “I might play football this weekend.” There are even some verbs that can take both a gerund and infinitive.

So, is there a rule to tell us which verbs are followed by which a gerund and which are followed by an infinitive? No, but there are a two methods to remember which is which.

The first method for remembering is to make a list of examples of each verb. This works well for remembering some of the most common verbs that can only be followed by either a gerund or infinitive. Lots of textbooks have examples like this, especially from Upper Intermediate to Advanced level. Memorising examples of these verbs and doing matching or fill-the-blanks exercises to check you remember is a good way to start understanding how gerunds and infinitives work.

However, this method is only practical for a certain amount of vocabulary. There is no way that someone could memorise all the verbs in English and whether they are usually followed by a gerund or infinitive, even if that person was a memory champion. In order to use gerunds and infinitives fluently at an advanced level, it’s more effective to think about how native-speakers use them.

Do native-speakers of English memorise long lists of vocabulary so they now whether to use a gerund or infinitive? No. If you ask a native-speaker how they know whether to use a gerund or infinitive after a verb, they will just say “Because it sounds right.” The reason native-speakers know instinctively what word to use next is because they have seen or heard these words lots of times before and, even if they don’t remember hearing them, this is what makes the correct usage ‘sound right’ to them.

The second method for using gerunds and infinitives correctly is through input activities. This means exposing yourself to as much spoken and written English as possible so that you know how the correct way to use these words ‘sounds’ and start to do it instinctively. This is a great way to learn other features of English such as collocations, binomials and prepositions. When choosing your input activities, pick styles of English relevant to your life. For example, if you are learning English for work, listen to the business news or read articles about your industry and if you are learning general English, listen to the radio or TV shows with people who are a similar age to you. While you are listening or reading, as well as making sure you understand what people are saying, listen to how they say it and copy any interesting or unusual phrases you hear.

The best way to master gerunds and infinitives is to use a combination of these methods. Start with the first to give yourself enough vocabulary to express yourself, then move on to more input activities to give yourself a wider range and make your English more fluent. Give it a try today and see how many verbs you know that take a gerund or infinitive then see if you can double that number in the next month. It’s a challenge, but it will help improve your English!

Wil is a writer, teacher, learning technologist and keen language learner. He’s taught English in classrooms and online for nearly 10 years, trained teachers in using classroom and web technology, and written e-learning materials for several major websites. He speaks four languages and is currently looking for another one to start learning.


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