Grammar is super important for TOEFL writing and so you should be confident in your ability to use all the most common elements of English grammar. But one that troubles many TOEFL test takers is the issue of whether to use a gerund or an infinitive in a sentence.
First of all, let’s explain what those terms mean. Essentially, a gerund is an “–ing” verb used as a noun, while an infinitive is the “to ____” form of the verb. For example, the verb “run” could be used in these sentences:
- I like running.
- I like to run.
The first is a gerund and the second is an infinitive. Notice how each sentence appears to contain two verbs (“like” and “run”) but in fact the second is treated as a sort of noun. It is the object of the sentence, while the main verb in each case is “like.” This is very useful for when we want to say something about an action. It allows us to add more complexity to our language.
You can see that both of those example sentences make perfect sense, but sometimes we cannot just use either form, as one is incorrect or the meaning is entirely different. We can say, for example:
- I planned to run.
But we cannot say:
- I planned running.
Likewise, we can say:
- I enjoy running.
But we cannot say:
- I enjoy to run.
So what rules are there governing the use gerunds and infinitives? Read on to find out more.
Rules for Choosing Gerunds or Infinitives
As the object of a sentence
First of all, let’s look at gerunds and infinitives as objects of a sentence. At the most basic level, we should know that different verbs can be followed by either the gerund or infinitive form. As you can tell from the examples above, we can use the verb “plan” with the infinitive form of a verb but not the gerund form, and “enjoy” with the gerund form but not the infinitive. That can be further seen from these examples:
- We planned visiting the orphanage.
- We planned to visit the orphanage.
- She planned attending community college that summer.
- She planned to attend community college that summer.
- The man enjoyed to visit his friends.
- The man enjoyed visiting his friends.
- People often enjoy to relax by the beach.
- People often enjoy relaxing by the beach.
So… is it just a matter of memorizing all the verbs in the English language and then remembering which ones take a gerund or infinitive after them? That is pretty much the only way to do it. There are many verbs that can only take a gerund and many that can only take an infinitive. Take a look at this list to see:
|Avoid going||Agree to go|
|Consider going||Choose to go|
|Deny going||Decide to go|
|Enjoy going||Fail to go|
|Justify going||Hope to go|
|Postpone going||Manage to go|
|Risk going||Refuse to go|
This may seem confusing or annoying, but it will come naturally to you over the course of your English studies. As time goes by, you will begin to recognize which verbs require the gerund and which require the infinitive form as their object.
As the subject of a sentence
Gerunds can be also used as the subject of a clause, and so you will commonly find them at the beginning of a sentence. However, it is much less common to see infinitives used in this way.
When a gerund is used as a subject, it is really important to think of that action as a noun rather than a verb, or else it becomes confusing and you might make some mistakes with the grammar of the sentence. An action like “play” or “read” can be turned into a gerund with an “-ing” form ending and then placed at the beginning of a clause just like a regular noun:
- Playing guitar was his obsession.
- Reading books is a popular activity among both the old and the young.
Although it is technically possible, it is very rare to see infinitives at the beginning of a sentence. This sort of language can sound rather old-fashioned and a bit too academic for regular speech. We would be unlikely to say “To win the trophy was his objective.” Instead, we would be much more likely to say, “His objective was to win the trophy,” or “Winning the trophy was his objective.”
As such, you should probably avoid using infinitives at the start of a sentence.
If you want to use an adjective with a gerund or infinitive, then you are going to have to prepare to change the grammar around. Let’s say we want to use the adjective “easy.” With a gerund, you would need to use this previous rule – putting the gerund as the subject of the sentence like this:
- Learning a language is not easy.
However, you could also use the infinitive form and put it immediately after the adjective:
- It is not easy to learn a language.
Here are some more examples:
- It is important to study English every day for TOEFL success.
- Studying English every day is important for TOEFL success.
- It is helpful to listen to music after you study something.
- Listening to music after you study something is helpful.
These sentences basically have the same meaning, although it could be argued that there is a slightly different emphasis, as whatever comes first in a sentence is usually implicitly considered the most important element.
As we have seen in the descriptions above, it can be challenging knowing whether to use the gerund or infinitive form of a verb, but there are some rules that you can follow to remember which one is correct. The most difficult situation is when the word comes as the object of a verb because then you need to remember what form to use, as there is really no guiding principal to follow. Fortunately, it is easy when the word comes as a subject or is related to an adjective, as in those cases the rules are simpler.
If you feel that you are having trouble with this or another aspect of your English writing, you should take a look at our TOEFL writing correction service.