G is for Gerund

6 06 2010

from Palmer's New Method Grammar 1938

I regularly rebuke my MA students for using the term gerund in their language analysis assignments, pointing out that in An A-Z, for example, there’s no entry for ‘gerund’. I am not alone, of course: neither Swan nor Murphy use the term in their various grammars, preferring, like me, the (somewhat ungainly) term ‘-ing form’. Most current coursebooks (e.g. Global)  follow suit.

Why this antipathy to the poor old gerund?  How else, after all, can we distinguish between the very different functions of -ing words, as in (1)  I went running (where running is more verb-like, hence a participle) and (2) Running keeps you fit (where running is more noun-like, and hence a gerund)?

Well, if only it were that easy. In fact, there seem to be a whole range of -ing form uses that cover a spectrum from total verby-ness to total nouny-ness (not to mention total adjectivey-ness), and with lots of  instances that are somewhere in between.  Consider these examples (from the British National Corpus) and you tell me which are gerunds and which are participles:

She remembers running up the aisle

a £17,000 flood after the royal taps were left running.

A HUSBAND and wife were convicted yesterday of running a brothel

I knew that my horse was capable of running well

We love running, so why not save on wedding cars?

Running a large application on a PC is fine

Mary waited and watched her running down the road.

Tomorrow Mr Foggerty is taking them running

there was a running battle between police and conservationists

accusations that its trains have suddenly started running late

“The only way you’re going to hurt me is by running away from me,”

The sort of things they do in the wild, running , jumping, pirouetting

As  Swan (2005) notes: “The distinction between ‘participles’ and ‘gerunds’ is not always clear-cut, and it can sometimes be difficut to decide which term to use” (p. 270).  While for Close (1981) the difference doesn’t really matter: “Whether the – ing form of the verb is what is traditionally called a present participle or a gerund is often an academic question, of no great importance.”

(By way of an aside, the difference did once matter, according to Sweet (1892). Historically there were two distinct forms for what we now call the present participle and the gerund: e.g. OE bindende and bindan, both meaning “binding”. By the Late Middle period changes in the suffix had narrowed the difference to bindinge and binding, a difference that effectively collapsed in the early Modern period, although the gerund still required an article: He thanked me for the binding of the book.)

Of arguably more importance, from a teaching point of view, is this: What is the rule that governs the choice of verb form – either -ing or infinitive – after particular verbs? Most grammars assume that there is none, that it’s simply an issue of collocation. Palmer (1938), in comparing these two sentences:

1. He begins to speak.

2. He stops speaking.

asks  “Why do we have to use the infinitive in one case and the gerund in the other?  Well, nobody knows what the real reason is, so we shall not try to find it”  ( p. 173)!

There are other grammarians who are less timid. Yule (1998), for example, argues that the choice is semantic, and that the to form (as in He begins to speak) connotes more verby-ness than nouny-ness, while the -ing form is just the opposite. In short, he distinguishes between ‘noun-like events’ and ‘verb-like acts’.  Thus, in the sentences:

1. He  considered going to the beach.

2. She suggested going to the museum.

the occurence of the verbs with an -ing complement “may be explained by thinking of the object of consider and suggest as an event (something more noun-like) than as the performance of an act” (p. 218). Whereas, in:

3. She told him to go without her.

4. He wanted her to go too.

“the focus is on the go act, and not on the event. The agency or performer of the act, is also mentioned in each case” (p. 219). Yule goes on to show how the following pairs exhibit the above  semantic differences:

5. I like to box/to dance/to swim/to ski.

6. I like boxing/dancing/swimming/ skiing.

“In [5], the speaker has to be talking about herself as agent performing the acts indicated in the complement. In [6], it is the event, not the act, that is the focus of attention, with the possibility existing that the speaker herself is not a performer in the events mentioned” (p. 220).

What do you think of Yule’s rule? Does it hold up over a range of verbs? And, more to the point, is it teachable?


Close, R. 1981.  English As a Foreign Language (3rd edition). George, Allen & Unwin.

Palmer, H.  1938.  The New Method Grammar. Longman, Green and Co.

Swan, M. 2005. Practical English Usage (3rd edition). Oxford University Press.

Sweet, H. 1892. Short Historical English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

Yule, G. 1998. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press.



34 responses

6 06 2010

Quick question – sorry Scott it’s not answering your question, but it a question I’ve been wanting to find the answer to for ages – is the /dz/ ‘rund’ or /g/ ‘rund’?

P.S. love Palmer’s excuse… I used the same excuse before on the subject ;0)

6 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Tim,
/ʤerʌnd/ I’m pretty sure.

10 06 2010
Kerry NZ

According to New American Oxford dict it is /dz/.

5 07 2010

That really depends on whether you’re a native speaker or not, I’d say.

6 06 2010

Re. 5…What about the idea (more common in the UK) of ‘I like to box’ meaning ‘I box because I think it is something I should do’? (Another example: I like to visit the dentist once a year.)

Is that in any way related to the point Yule makes about the importance of the actor? Not sure how.

6 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Glennie – yes, that is certainly a ‘rule’ I have taught, and it is definitely consistent with Yule’s take, i.e. that the infinitive implicates the speaker as actor. It follows the pattern I want to box, I hope to box, I need to box, etc. (Why Yule chose boxing as his first example I dont know!)

6 06 2010

What about with the verb like.

What do you do in your free time?

Well, I like to go to the mountains
Well, I like going to the mountains

Surely the tone of voice/intonation used would also influence whether the emphasis was on the speaker as actor or the event/act itself.

The problem with trying to teach a set of rules is that the rule may fit nicely with a particular verb – but then be far less clear with a different verb. Students often get frustrated after understanding a nice example and rule only to find the rule doesn’t apply to the next couple of examples.

Generally the verbs that take both …ing forms and infinitives but with a real change of meaning, might warrant explicit rule teaching…..

I remember visiting Los Angeles
Please remember to visit Los Angeles

But isn’t it more useful to study the meaning of verb + verb+ing and verb + infinitive within their context and use the discourse around the collocation to help make sense of the collocation instead of trying to fit rules around isolated sentences?

6 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Steph – Glennie also mentioned the verb like (above), i.e. that, with the infinitive, it has the connotation of something that is a good idea, as opposed to just a pleasurable activity. Hence, the second of these two examples is less probable:

1. I like to have my teeth checked regularly.
2. I like having my teeth checked regularly.

And, of course stress and intonation can change the effect of an utterance, just as context can, but the study of grammatical meaning needs to eliminate these variables if it is going to locate the ‘core’ semantic meaning, doesn’t it?

And, yes thanks for reminding me about the point that certain verbs distinguish between the event/act BEFORE the main verb time reference and the event/act AFTER the main verb time reference. Thus:

1. I stopped smoking (= I was smoking before I stopped)
2. I stopped to smoke (= first I stopped and then I smoked)

Brazil, in his A Grammar of Speech (1995), points out that “to forms refer to events that are anticipated from the time reference point of another verb” and adds that this means “they always leave open the possibility that, when that time comes, the event will not actually take place”. So, it would be theoretically possible to say “I stopped to smoke, but I didn’t have any matches so I continued on my way”. Verb + -ing, on the other hand, assumes that the event times of the two verbs coincide. “I stopped smoking” implies I was smoking at the point when I stopped.

7 06 2010
English Raven

Very interesting stuff, Scott. I really wish I’d had some of this clarifying information at hand when, in my first year of teaching, a Korean teacher colleague bailed me up in the staff room and begged me to explain in graphic detail the exact difference between gerund and infinitive… so that she could explain it all to her class of 5th graders…

However, your post here did have me reaching for my bookcase to look through level 4 (highest level) of my Boost! Grammar series, just to refresh myself on how I’d approached Unit 10 for an audience of advanced/advancing learners in the 12-15 age group range.

In a theme-driven unit called “Shipwreck Hunters”, I do indeed call the specific grammar skill Gerunds and Infinitives, and my approach at these slightly younger ages appears to be a combination of collocation (pointing out patterns with high-frequency verbs) and an awareness how some verbs + meanings essentially stay quite similar irrespective of gerund or infinitive application, while for others the meanings can change quite noticeably depending on which form is used.

After some initial noticing activities, simple explanation + charts and controlled practice with gap-fills, the following task is given:

Work with a classmate to tell the story. Say each statement using the gerund or the infinitive form of each verb.

1. Today, I started (plan) my expedition
2. I remember (see) an old map that showed the location of a lost ship.
3. However, I forgot (take) the map when I left!
4. I tried (find) the ship on my own, but I needed to stop (get) help.
5. I met a fisherman who stopped (fish) to help me.
6. We began (search) and soon we found the ship!
7. The fisherman suggested we try (dive) down to the wreck.
8. Instantly, I regretted (get) into the cold water, but I went on (swim).

After the learners have puzzled through these selections and checked with the class, they are invited to continue the story begun above and bring it to a conclusion, selecting a range of verbs to use from a box of choices – many of which invite specific attention to choosing one form or the other (gerund or infinitive).

I think the approach I was encouraging here was some general “feel” for the forms, and some initial decision making during communicative statements when/where gerund or infinitive are likely to affect the meaning and flow of the utterances. To be honest, at these levels and age groups, I didn’t want to get into too much nitty gritty. Nor did I want to have this grammar distract from a genuinely interesting theme.

I think my label of gerund also had a lot to do with catering to the interests of teachers in Asia, who do like to use the term and – tragically, I feel – appear to enjoy agonizing over its specific points of departure from the infinitive application.

Sorry for such a long response – it has always been an area of English grammar that has puzzled me, and I thought it might be of interest to some teachers to see how a coursebook writer for younger teens approached the issue.


– Jason

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jason – as ever you bring these issues back to the classroom – and your story that contextualises the various verbs is ingenious, to say the least. I also take your point that “the approach I was encouraging here was some general “feel” for the forms” – which maybe all one can hope for, especially with younger learners.

7 06 2010
David Venezia

Damn. I’m shocked. I kind of surmised that you didn’t like the classic distinction present participle/gerund, but really thinking about Close’s argument that the distinction is often academic kind of brings it home for me. In most of the cases I can think of off the top of my head, it DOES seem to be largely academic. I’ll probably stop teaching the distinction, since in some of the examples you provide above, I would be hard pressed to give a clear explanation as to why it would be one or the other.

Though what has really sent a wave of static through me are the infinitive/ing form construction regularities Yule has posited. I have always taught them as collocations, which has always gotten my goat in secret because I HATE having to say ‘oh well. we just have to memorize them.’

I don’t know if it holds up through stringent example formulation processes, but Yule’s distinction seems to hold water for me so far. I’m going to try to come up with some counterexamples, but just the idea of being able to teach infinitives and ing forms that come after verbs in a systematic way is very exciting to me.


7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David – like you, I don’t like telling students that grammar patterns are arbitrary and that they simply “have to learn them”. Nevertheless, in the light of Nicky’s questions (below) and my comment, I’m not sure that we have successfully cracked this nut quite yet!

7 06 2010

My personal take on Yule’s “boxing” example: Why indeed does he choose “boxing” of all things?

I’d say it’s an attractive example because it is a spectator sport–meaning that in this case the distinction between “the speaker…talking about herself as agent” vs. “the possibility existing that the speaker herself is not a performer in the events mentioned” is crystal clear.

So one hand, “I like to box” is clearly the affirmation of an amateur pugilist and “I like boxing” that of an avid spectator. (Kind of like me with football, as I’ve literally never played in my life but I’ve developed a taste for watching it on TV.)

In contrast, if someone says to me “I like dancing”, I certainly don’t imagine them sitting at home watching “Dancing with the Stars”–I imagine them doing the Stanky Leg or the Funky Penguin or something like that.

As such, however much truth there may be to Yule’s semantic distinction between the two forms, I highly doubt that it’s worth trying to teach. You start talking about “noun-like events” and “verb-like acts” and you’re likely to get either blank stares or (worse) impassioned debates about why “I considered to go” should or shouldn’t be correct–I think it’s a distinction (like most) that has to be internalized intuitively, not verbalized and applied as a rule.

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nicky – that’s a good point about the way that the choice of verb (boxing vs dancing) can skew the evidence. (This is a common problem with invented examples in grammar books, and argues for 1. always trying out examples with other lexical items and 2. using a corpus to find ‘real’ examples). To be fair to Yule, he also includes dancing, swimming and skiing in his list of verbs that collocate with like, but I agree that with “I like dancing/swimming/skiing” there is a stronger implication that I am the performer. Yule’s point though is that with the -ing form, the speaker could be the performer, but isn’t necessarily. So, for example, “even if you are a non-smoker you can say I don’t like smoking because, with the gerund, you don’t have to be the one doing it” [cf I don’t like to smoke] (p. 220).

On reflection, though, this distinction only seems to work with intransitive verbs, but doesn’t hold up if the verb that follows the main verb has an object, e.g.: I like watching tennis; I like writing poetry; I like playing football… In this case it would be hard to argue that the speaker is not also the person doing the watching/writing or playing.


I also agree with you that the metalanguage (noun-like events and verb-like acts) is fairly abstruse and unlikely to be of much practical use in the classroom. So, are we back to square one – i.e. Palmer’s point that we don’t know why we choose one form over the other, so just learn the collocations?

7 06 2010
Paul Maglione

Nice post; I couldn’t agree more. I think there are a lot of areas, in fact, where the understandable quest for precision in grammar analysis leads, in fact, to more confusion.

The English language is simply not as rigidly modular as conventional grammarians and even linguists would like it to be, and for the sake of both learners and teachers of English I believe we must migrate to a more mechanistic description of forms (your “the -ing form”) married to a contextual explanation of how it can be employed.

Really love this blog series. Taxi drivers have their “knowledge,” with the Thornbury A-Z, we have ours.

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Paul writes: “I believe we must migrate to a more mechanistic description of forms (your “the -ing form”) married to a contextual explanation of how it can be employed”.

Yes, and that “contextual explanation” can be enriched by the knowledge we now have about usage – including frequency – as revealed through corpus studies. For example, did you know that

“Although many verbs can be followed by a gerund, only a few verbs are very common with gerunds. Verb + infinitive combinations are much more common than verb + gerund combinations”

This information comes from Conrad, S., and Biber, D. 2009. Real Grammar: A Corpus-based Approach to English (Pearson). They go on to note that

“In most cases, where a verb can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive and have roughly the same meaning, the verb + infinitive combination is more common. There is one exception to this pattern: the verb start.” (p. 101)

So, in the absence of teachable rules, maybe we should simpy teach (usage-based) tendencies?

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Out of curiosity, I checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – the link is in my ‘handy websites list’ above – to see if the Hunston and Biber statements were reflected in the data.

Searching for strings of pronoun + like(d) + -ing I came up wth these top ten combinations (along with the number of incidences in a 300m word corpus)

I like being 266
you like being 105
I like doing 81
I like having 75
I like working 58
he likes being 50
you like working 50
I liked being 48
I like going 44
she liked being 42

The top ten strings for pp + like(d) + to+infinitive show a significant increase in hits:

I like to think 638
you like to see 413
I like to do 272
you like to be 223
you like to do 219
I like to be 210
I like to see 182
you like to have 170
you like to go 167
we like to think 160

If you total these up you get 819 + -ing vs 2654 + to-inf, i.e. over three times as many of the latter.

The pattern is repeated with noun subjects, although with many fewer hits, the most common string (over 100) being people like to see/say/talk/think/use etc, with father liked to say the next most common string (but only 9 instances). Students liked + -ing was the most frequent gerund combo, but recorded a pathetic six hits.

7 06 2010

Scott, those figures you quote for the US would not be reflected in usage in the UK.

As a Brit, I would more naturally produce ‘My father loves meeting people’ than ‘My father loves to meet people’. The Atlantic makes a big difference with this one, at least with verbs expressing like and dislike.

Aside from the like/dislike group (at least in the US), which other verbs ‘can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive and have roughly the same meaning’?

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Glennie. Your comment prompted me to check the British National Corpus (in its version housed at Brigham Young University – http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/x.asp ) which is only a third the size of the COCA corpus, but does appear to give comparable data, i.e.

I like being 34
I like doing 25
you like doing 17
I like watching 15
you like being 14
she liked being 12
I like going 11
I like having 11
I like playing 9
I like looking 8


I like to think 92
you like to come 74
you like to go 72
you like to see 56
you like to do 54
you like to be 51
I like to see 47
I like to be 46
I like to have 30
you like to have 29

However, the preponderance of you subjects made me suspicious, and, sure enough, when I checked the concordances for these, they were almost all part of a question beginning with would (would you like to come to dinner, etc), so technically they should be eliminated. I suspect the American corpus contains the same mischievous data. I’ll need to go back and ‘correct’ the figures.

7 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

I didn’t answer you second question, Glennie, i.e. “Aside from the like/dislike group (at least in the US), which other verbs ‘can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive and have roughly the same meaning’?”

The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, CUP, 2006) mentions only the like/dislike group, listing hate, like, love and prefer. They note that

the difference in meaning is often not great, but -ing emphasises the action or event in itself, while the infinitive places the emphasis more on the results of the action or event (p. 515).

They also note that “when these verbs are used with would or should only the infinitive is used, not the -ing form.” (ibid.)

7 06 2010

Thanks for that.

8 06 2010
David Venezia

To shift the discussion just a bit, whether or not we say present participles and gerunds should be differentiated as distinct parts of speech, it still seems to me that except for in cases of a present participle in the slot of attributive adjective (ex/ The steering wheel of my car is blue) gerunds and present participles take objects (I like driving my car). This is a situation in which a noun can be placed next to another noun because of the action expressed in the ing word form. Unless we are going to say that this is a case of indirect/direct object, I don’t see any other way to explain it than to say that ‘driving’ expresses an action but appears in a slot usually occupied by a noun, and takes an object like a transitive verb would, calling the whole thing a noun (gerund) phrase. I guess I could say ing word form phrase, but that comes across as somewhat diaphanous.

Whether or not we want to try to explain these things, however, they exist in English. I also wouldn’t know how to explain “The man running along the street looks tired,” unless I were to mention reduced adjective clause and present participle in the same explanation. I can look for other ways to talk about these types of constructions, but the participle/gerund distinction has worked really elegantly for me in the past.

It really stinks that its not a universally valid distinction;)

8 06 2010
Anne Hodgson

I’m all for going “back to square 1” (@you and Nicky). In teaching I really think it boils down to focussing on essential distinctions in meaning that let you avoid misunderstanding. To pick up on those examples above, the only ones my students would really find relevant are:

I like boxing (especially watching the middleweight championships).
I don’t like to box (Matt does, but when he goes to the gym, I go running).

I stopped calling Luke.
I stopped to call Matt.

With EFLers anything beyond that becomes a matter of personal cultural preference: Which singers, actors, authors are they into, what’s the buzzword that year? E.g., I was noticing that The Tallest Man On Earth, that Swedish songwriter, uses the -ing form a lot, especially as he can shorten it to -‘in … maybe because it makes him sound more like Bob Dylan.

8 06 2010
Nick Jaworski

I agree that this distinction is academically interesting, but, like David and Nicky, I would never bother pointing it out. I would point out that, if you have to guess, use the infinitive, but that’s about it.

Also like David, I think the ability of gerunds & infinitives to take objects is probably more important than distinctions between the too. We can’t say “Murder animals is wrong.” We have to say “Murdering animals is wrong.” Along the same lines, we would never say “Murdering is wrong.”

Do be honest, I prefer the arbitrary nature of some language. My answer in class can often be, “because it’s English.” I’ve talked about this before and really feel that many convoluted grammar explanations simply make matters worse rather than help the students although this isn’t always the case.

I’ve had students ask things like how do you know if a verb is a modal or why don’t we use infinitives after modals. If there are answers to these questions, I don’t see how they could possibly help. Memorize the modals, accept the structures, and move on. My best students have always been the ones that can’t tell a noun from an adjective but they know if something sounds right or wrong. I think that’s probably one of the best ways to learn.

8 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

“My best students have always been the ones that can’t tell a noun from an adjective but they know if something sounds right or wrong.”

And where do these intuitions come from, Nick?

“Ah, solving that question
Brings the linguist and the researcher
In their long coats
Running over the fields”

(to paraphrase Philip Larkin!)

8 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

(This was meant to be a reply to Anne’s comment, but Nick cheekily slipped in while I was writing it!)

“Going back to square 1” is what a new coursebook from Cambridge (the very nice English Unlimited, Tilbury et al. 2010) seems to be doing. In the pre-intermediate grammar reference section, the term gerund is used unapologetically, and the student is advised “You can use a dictionary to check whether verbs are followed by an infinitive with to or a gerund” (p. 141).

Incidentally, there seems to be some uncertainty as to what this area of grammar (where verbs are followed by other, non-finite, verbs) is called. In a recent piece in the Learning English section of the Guardian Weekly (21.05.10), in which the choice of “Yes, we want” as a slogan to promote bilingual schools in Madrid is ridiculed, “language experts” are quoted as saying that the “phrase ‘Yes we can’ should be followed by an auxiliary verb such as to do or to be” (p. 3). Apart from confusing the two slogans (Yes, we can and Yes, we want) this is patently untrue, implying, as it does, that Yes, we can to be is both meaningful and well-formed, and that to be is an auxiliary verb in this instance. Complete nonsense.

The fact of the matter is that want is a transitive verb, and hence requires an object, whether that object is a noun phrase, or a non-finite clause (formed with an infinitive), as in We want to learn English. If you’re looking for the answers in a decent grammar book, you would go to the section called Verb complementation. (Not that journalists ever see the need to consult a reference book when they are pontificating on grammar!)

9 06 2010
Paul Maglione

I think Nick’s viewpoint is very real-world and pragmatic.

Linguists are fascinated with the challenge of drawing up a logical system of rules and structures with which they hope to explain 100% of language usage. But the “inconvenient truth” (as Al Gore would put it) is that the English language was not built in a laboratory, according to a formula, but haphazardly and on a framework of informal speech, forms falling in and out of favor, and regional variations. Thus I honestly think that for teachers to introduce ELLs to the technical jargon, structural reasoning and technical distinctions that are the daily concern of linguists, language researchers and other academics is guaranteed to just create more confusion than clarity for most learners.

That said, I have enormous respect for linguists who are indeed able to make some sense out of the English language’s many exceptions and contradictions. I admire them. I just don’t think — and I’m aware that this might earn me some degree of opprobrium from the readers of this blog — that those distinctions, labeled as they are for the most part, are very useful to the majority of those trying to achieve fluency in English, and might even do more harm than good.

9 06 2010
Nick Jaworski

The intuition comes from exposure and use. Eventually, you hear and say something so often that it sounds right. This is the same thing that native speakers do. Most non-English teachers couldn’t tell you why “I have played football twice last week” is wrong, but they know it is. The best language learners do the same. They don’t obsess about the rules, but go by what they hear and see and then repeat it.

This is easy to see in a class where students are laboriously translating or trying to slowly put sentences together in their head while there are always one or two students that take what you said, slot in any necessary changes, and throw it back at you. They don’t worry about the rules or why it is said this way, they simply accept it and use it.

I’m not saying knowing grammar rules doesn’t help, especially if you are trying to say something you don’t have a reference for, but I’ve found that the more you pull your students away from obsessing about the why and the how and the sooner you get them using what they see and hear, the quicker they improve.

11 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

“The intuition comes from exposure and use.”

OK, good answer Nick. The question then is – how much – and what kind of – exposure and use? And is optimal exposure and use possibe for a learner who attends a language class, say, twice a week for 90 minutes? In such a case, might not some explicit rule teaching (or, more benignly, pattern sensitization) help cut corners?

15 06 2010
Nick Jaworski

An excellent question. I tried to give an in-depth answer here http://turklishtefl.com/2010/03/25/why-grammar-is-overrated-part-3/

Basically, I’d make a distinction between simple application rules vs. complex and murky grammatical concepts.

19 06 2010
Tim Harrell

Might not the distinction for the like verbs be related to regularity of the action (liking)?


I like listening to jazz music (in general)
I like to listen to classical music every now and then (occasionally)

This tends to be how I use like, preferring the -ing form for more habitual usage and the infinitive for more irregular or ad-hoc cases.

For example, I could say ‘once in a blue moon, I like to climb a mountain’ but I would never use the -ing form if I meant such an occasional usage (and with the -ing form it would only make sense to say something like ‘I like climbing mountains’ rather than using the indefinite article)

Apart from that I agree with Nick J’s sound advice – if the rule is clear-cut then you can mention it but in cases where the rule, if any, is so abstract or unclear that linguists are still debating it, it’s best to take the statistical approach. In my case that involves highlighting the most common -ing instances of the verb pattern and telling students that if in doubt they should use the infinitive.

I also agree with Nick’s comment that intuition arises from exposure. That is why supplementary reading as self-study can be so valuable – especially as the student progresses to a level where they can acquire more exposure to authentic texts.

6 07 2010
Chia Suan Chong

I was wondering if you have heard Halliday’s understanding of what he calls ‘verb complexes’ and the difference between the use of the ‘gerund’ and the ‘infinitive’ in ‘Introduction to Systemic Functional Grammar’?

He mentions that gerunds carry the meaning of ‘real, present, in progress’ while infinitives carry the meaning of ‘potential, unreal, future’.
in ‘I hope to go’ the ‘going’ is a potential and still unreal at the moment of ‘hoping’…i.e. you first hope, then you go…
Whereas in ‘I finished writing’, the process of ‘writing’ was real and happening at the moment of ‘finishing’.

Similarly, in ‘She denied breaking that window’, although the denying happened in the past (therefore the use of the past simple), the breaking of the window was already real at the moment of the denying, and had happened before the denying.

You could apply the same rule to ‘remember +-ing’ and ‘remember + to-inf’ and it’d work…

Halliday claims that the so-called progressive tense used to be a verb complex too.
Compare: ‘to be + -ing’ and ‘to be + to-inf’
The former was used a lot more often and therefore earned the status of a tense in Modern English…

This is what I tend to use in my classrooms and it gives students a better feel of the ‘meaning’ of the ‘-ing’ form and the infinitive.

7 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Chia, for that useful summary of Halliday’s thinking. I now understand how both Yule and Brazil draw heavily on his description. I seem to remember (I’m away from my library right now) that Yule makes a similar point by contrasting:

1. She denied hitting the child.
2. She refused to hit the child.

In (1) (the ‘hitting’ was real, and preceded the ‘denying’; in (2) the ‘hitting’ is potential and still unreal at the time of ‘refusing’.


As for the historical origin of the continuous forms, I find this fascinating, but also it is a good example of how noun-like forms become grammaticised into verb structures over time. What Halliday might call ‘grammatical metaphor’, perhaps.

5 12 2010
Vance Stevens

I just posted this to the dogme list. Then Scott called our attention to his blog and I thought I’d toss it in here:

I found some insights here, regarding the dogme example, we stopped buying ice cream vs. we stopped to buy it. The suggestion was that choice had something to do with verb tense.


According to this it’s not the verb tense but whether the verb is ‘factive’ or not.

And we stopped is past indeed, and that’s the time reference. But the reason for stopping was ‘to buy’, something that had not yet occurred, so this is a future event transposed to a past time (we stopped).

That is, the action had not taken place and was therefore not yet factive.

However, in we stopped buying ice cream, this refers to events that had taken place many times before the stopping, and so this refers to something that had been a recurring fact.

For fun I suggested that the writer focus on the first part of the verb and start buying ice cream again (obviously buying ice cream was something you used to do). You might start to buy ice cream with an initial purchase tomorrow, and after that you can keep buying ice cream (when you keep doing something, the factivity is so pronounced that there doesn’t appear to be a way to keep to do something, how would you keep to do something that you had not yet done?)

There is some research on this issue. I think I may have read the Kapersky’s article (1970) referred to in the link above in my MA program. It would be interesting to know if this research is supported through corpus linguistics. A quick Google check turned up Kristin Davidse’s (2003) A corpus check of the factive presupposition. In A. Remael and K. Pelsmaekers (eds.) Configurations of culture: Essays in honour of Michael Windross. Antwerpen: Garant. 115-126.

Does this help, or is it just more rubbish 😉


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