Choosing between full infinitives, bare infinitives, and gerunds


Part I

FOR the test statement below, English teacher Farhad H. in Iran recently sent me an email asking which answer choice is correct and why: “Peter, you have been working so hard this year. I am sure you must be tired. My suggestion for you is (take, to take, taking) some time off.”

The answer is, of course, a choice between the bare infinitive “take,” the full infinitive “to take,” and the gerund “taking.” With a fair knowledge about these grammar forms and judging from how the third sentence sounds, one can readily conclude that the answer is the full infinitive: “My suggestion for you is to take some time off.”

The bigger, much tougher question though is why it should be “to take” and not “take” or “taking,” and to answer it adequately we need to do a quick review of infinitives and gerunds as verbals or words that combine the characteristics of a verb and a noun.

Recall that a full infinitive has the form “to +base form of the verb,” as in “to rest” in “The tired watchman decided to rest”; here, the infinitive “to rest” is the direct object (the receiver of the action) of the operative verb “decided.” On the other hand, a bare infinitive is an infinitive that, to work properly (or at least smoothly) in a sentence, needs to drop the function word “to” and use only the verb’s base form, as in “rest” in “We saw the watchman rest for a while”; here, the bare infinitive “rest” is the direct object of the operative verb “saw.” (Using the full infinitive “to rest” sounds awkward and iffy: “We saw the watchman to rest for a while.”)

As to the gerund, it’s a form of the verb that ends in “-ing” to become a noun, as in “resting” in “Resting recharged the watchman for the rest of his shift.” In this sentence, “resting” is the subject, a grammatical role that its full infinitive equivalent—although also a noun form—plays awkwardly in this particular case: “To rest recharged the watchman for the rest of his shift.”

This brings us to the four general ground rules for using an infinitive or gerund so it can work properly in particular sentence constructions:

1. Use the infinitive as subject to denote potential, as in “To forgive is a good thing.” On the other hand, use the gerund to denote actuality or fact, as in “Forgiving made her feel better.”

2. Use the infinitive as complement or object to denote future ideas and plans, as in “His life-goal is to teach.” On the other hand, use the gerund when denoting acts done or ended, as in “She chose teaching.”

3. Use the infinitive as complement for single action, as in “He took a leave to travel,” and
for repeated action, as in “Evenings we come here to rest.” On the other hand, use the gerund for ongoing action, as in “The model finds resting necessary after every shoot.”

4. Use the infinitive as object for a request, as in “He asked me to wait,” for instruction, as in “She instructed me to rehearse,” and causation, as in “He was forced to resign.” On the other hand, use the gerund for attitude, as in “She thinks teaching is a noble profession,” and for unplanned action, as in “She found jogging to her liking.”

On top of these ground rules, we must firmly keep in mind that the primary basis for choosing an infinitive or gerund is the operative verb of the sentence. We also need to get used to the fact that some operative verbs can take full or bare infinitives, others can take gerunds, and the rest can take both.

Next week, we’ll focus on the choice between full infinitives and bare infinitives.

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