Making the choice between infinitives and gerunds – I

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

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

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“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.”)

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 next week’s column.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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