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Like to read? Or like reading?

Q: Is there a reason why some verbs are followed by gerunds and some by infinitives?  I’ve seen lists created to help non-native speakers, but I haven’t seen a rule that explains what’s going on.

A: In the kind of construction you’re referring to, when a verb has an action as its object, that action can be expressed either as a gerund (an “-ing” word like “skating”) or as “to” plus an infinitive (“to skate”).

Some verbs, like “adore,” use only gerunds in such a situation: “She adores skating.” Others, like “wish,” use only “to”-infinitives: “She wishes to skate.”

And still other verbs, like “prefer,” can use either one: “She prefers skating” … “She prefers to skate.”

So for many verbs there’s a division of labor between the gerunds and the infinitives. But for other verbs, either one is possible.

This state of affairs has evolved over time, and native speakers of English don’t have to stop and think about which to choose—gerund or infinitive. It’s largely a problem for foreign learners.

Anyone who’s puzzled can consult one of the many verb lists on the Internet, but those merely tell which complement goes with which verb—they don’t say why.

There’s a good reason for this. In fact, there’s no easy way to explain why some verbs are followed by gerunds, some by “to”-infinitives, and some by either one (but often with different meanings).

A great many academic linguists have written about this subject, but no one, to our knowledge, has come up with a simple formula—perhaps because no simple formula is possible.

For purposes of experiment, let’s make up a test. We’ll look at two different sets of verbs and the typical object (gerund or infinitive) that goes with them.

● verbs followed by a gerund: “She enjoys/practices/finishes/resumes skating.”

● verbs followed by a “to”-infinitive: “She decides/prepares/plans/intends to skate.” 

Is there a pattern here that would explain why some verbs go one way and some another? We’ve come across three general views.

(1) Some linguists suggest that the gerund constructions refer to actions that are habitual or have happened in the past, while “to”-infinitives are about potential or future actions.

(2) Others suggest that gerunds represent actions that are “real” or fulfilled, while infinitives represent actions that are hypothetical or yet to come.

(3) Still others see gerund constructions as conveying sensation or actual experience, while infinitive constructions convey volition—that is, a general inclination toward something.

All three make good points, but taken together what do they add up to? Perhaps that gerunds often look back (to an action that’s completed or in progress), while “to”-infinitives tend to look ahead—literally “to” or toward something.

Yet even that statement has holes in it. For example, verbs like “contemplate,” “recommend,” and “advise” all take gerunds and yet refer to unfulfilled actions. You can see what a slippery eel we’re trying to grasp here. 

And how to explain verbs that go either way?

With some of these verbs, the choice of gerund versus infinitive can make little or no difference in meaning: “She likes skating” versus “She likes to skate.”

But with some other two-way verbs, the choice can make a marked difference.

The verb “try” is a good example of the latter. It can take both complements: “He tried skating” … “He tried to skate.” But the meanings are different. The first refers to skating in general, while the second refers to a particular act.

Or consider the verb “stop”—”I stopped thinking” means just the opposite of “I stopped to think.”

The verb “remember” is another interesting example. “He remembers washing” is very different from “He remembers to wash.” In the first, he recalls an occasion when he washed (in the past); in the second, he’s reminded to perform the act (in the present or near future).

This answer is a bit rambling, but you can perhaps get the drift. This is a very broad and complicated subject, one that many linguists of our time (and earlier) have wrestled with.

As Randolph Quirk wrote in The Linguist and the English Language (1974): “There ought to be a big award for anyone who can describe exactly what makes him say ‘I started to work’ on one occasion and ‘I started working’ on another.”

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