• Playing it by ear when to use a gerund or infinitive


    A Facebook friend, Espie Corpuz, recently posted this grammar request on my Facebook page that serves as gateway to Jose Carillo’s English Forum:

    “Please discuss for everyone which is correct: (1) ‘I’m looking forward to meeting my old buddy again’ or (2) ‘I’m looking forward to meet my buddy again.’”

    Since the request touches on a very instructive aspect of English grammar, I am taking this opportunity to elaborate on the rather abbreviated reply I’ve given Espie on Facebook.

    Both of the sentences presented by Espie are grammatically correct and have practically the same sense. Functionally, though, the gerund phrase “meeting my old buddy again” in Sentence 1 is the object of the preposition “to,” through which that gerund phrase indirectly receives the action of the phrasal verb “looking forward.” On the other hand, the infinitive phrase “to meet my buddy again” in Sentence 2 is the direct object of that same phrasal verb.

    Recall now that both the gerund and infinitive are verbals or verb forms that function as nouns, which means that each can serve as subject, object, or complement in a sentence. In performing these functions, however, gerunds and infinitives are not freely interchangeable and mutually equivalent. In particular, some operative verbs can take either a gerund or infinitive as direct object, but other verbs balk and just won’t take an infinitive as direct object.

    For instance, a sentence that has “continue” as operative verb can have either a gerund phrase or infinitive phrase as direct object (or as object of the preposition). Consider this sentence: “They continued paying for her tuition without letup.” The gerund phrase “paying for her tuition without letup” works without any hitch as direct object of the verb “continued,” but so does its infinitive phrase equivalent “to pay for her tuition without letup” in the sentence “They continued to pay for her tuition without letup.” Both sentences have the same sense, too.

    Like “continue,” the following operative verbs can also take either a gerund phrase or infinitive phrase as direct object: “attempt,” “begin,” “start,” “leave,” “stop,” “continue,” “love,” “like,” “dislike,” “hate,” “remember,” “forget,” “neglect,” “regret,” “intend,” “plan,” “permit,” “plan,” “prefer,” “propose,” “try,” and “mean.” This can be verified by using them as operative verbs of sentences with different sets of gerund phrases or infinitive phrases as direct object.

    In contrast, there are some operative verbs that can only take a gerund or gerund phrase—never an infinitive or infinitive phrase—as direct object. Among them are “admit,” “advise,” “appreciate,” “anticipate,” “avoid,” “consider,” “delay,” “deny,” “discuss,” “enjoy,” “excuse,” “finish,” “keep,” “mind,” “miss,” “postpone,” “practice,” “quit,” “recall,” “recommend,” “regret,” “resent,” “resist,” “resume,” “risk,” “tolerate,” “try,” “understand,” and “imagine.”

    Take “anticipate” as operative verb, for instance. It works perfectly with the gerund phrase “receiving the next shipment in a week” as direct object” in the sentence “We anticipate receiving the next shipment in a week,” but makes an epic fail with the equivalent infinitive phrase in the sentence “We anticipate to receive the next shipment in a week.”

    When used as operative verb, “consider” also encounters the same problem. It works perfectly with the gerund phrase “taking a short-cut to their destination” as direct object in the sentence “They considered taking a short-cut to their destination,” but likewise makes an epic fail with the equivalent infinitive phrase in “They considered to take a short-cut to their destination.”

    Now the big question is this: Is there a known formula for finding out whether a gerund phrase or infinitive phrase will function properly as direct object of a particular operative verb? Other than a good working knowledge of how gerunds and infinitives work in sentences, there is actually no simple ground rule for that. We just have to play it by ear when we construct sentences using specific operative verbs.

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    1. Please help. I often encounter sentences where there is an s in the noun as in the following: 1. Let us all take care of our hearts. 2. We should wash our faces daily. Is the use of s in these sentences correct? Thank you very much!

      • Yes, the use of “-s” to pluralize the objects “hearts” and “faces” is grammatically correct. This is because the presence of the adjective “our” as modifier of these objects makes it mandatory for them to be plural in a collective sense—meaning that there are as many hearts as the members of the collective “we” or “us” that’s making the statement.

        By simple inspection, we can readily see that the object in both Sentence 1 and Sentence 2 can’t be rendered correctly in its singular form, as follows: 1.” Let us all take care of our heart.” 2. “We should wash our face daily.” To do so creates the wrong sense that the collective “we” or “us” have only one heart or one face, which of course isn’t the case at all.

        However, the situation will be different if the object is singular by nature or if its number is specified by the speaker, as in the case of the noun “planet” or “bathroom” in the following sentences: 3. “Let us all take care of our planet.” 4. “We should keep our bathroom clean at all times.”

        In Sentence 3, it’s obvious that although the ownership of the noun “planet” is collective, there’s actually only one planet being referred to, so the plural modifier adjective “our” doesn’t necessarily require the object “planet” to be plural as well.

        On the other hand, despite the presence of the plural modifier “our,” the object “bathroom” in Sentence 4 is in the singular form because this is the sense intended by the speaker—meaning that the collective “we” (perhaps a family living under one roof) happens to have only one bathroom. But if the family happens to have two or more bathrooms, that object could as well be rendered in the plural, as follows: “We should keep our bathrooms clean at all times.”

        Indeed, what ultimately determines whether the object in a sentence should be singular or plural is not the modifying possessive adjective (“our,” “its,” “their,” “his,” “her”) but the nature of the object or the specific sense intended for it by the speaker.