Saturday, July 24, 2004

Gerunds and Infinitives: Three Verbs with Meaning Changes

Some sources have a short list of verbs that can be followed by gerunds or infinitives, but the meanings differ. With some of the verbs like try, the difference in meaning is subtle and difficult to explain or even at times to see. However, three verbs that can be followed by either gerunds or infinitives have clear differences in meaning. These verbs are: forget, remember, and stop.


To show the difference, let's look at stop.

Gerund: I stopped smoking.

Infinitive: I stopped to smoke.

The first sentence has at least two different meanings. One is that I stopped smoking (cigarettes) and did something else. The second one is that I stopped my habit of smoking cigarettes. A third meaning could be that I have cooled down and no longer have smoke coming off of me. Another possible meaning might be applied to sports, in particular baseball, where a pitcher might be declaring that his fastball is no longer as fast as it was. In all of these meanings, the person speaking talks about something that happened in the past.

With the infinitive, the speaker (or writer) says that he or she stopped doing something (what is not stated here, but it could be). In other words, two actions are indicated first the action that is now finished and the second one that was begun – to smoke.

Now it is possible to write a sentence with stop that uses both a gerund and infinitive which might show this difference.

I stopped running to smoke.

One action now is in the past, running, while the second action has begun.

Remember and forget are related though opposite mental activities, but they differ in their meanings and use.


Infinitive: I remember to mail the letter. ( less likely to be used)

I remembered to mail the letter.

Gerund: I remember mailing the letter.

I remembered mailing the letter.(less likely to be used)

With the infinitive, I think we are more likely to use the infinitive with the past tense of remember because we mean that mailed the letter and we remembered to do it in the past. In other words both the remembering and mailing took place in the past perhaps in the order of remembering and then mailing. That is why we are unlikely to use the present tense of remember. I can think of one possible use of the present tense which is to describe someone's daily actions.

With the gerund, we are more likely to use the present tense with the gerund because the remembering is occurring in the present while the action, mailing the letter, occurred in the past. So we are not likely to use the past unless we are reporting the sequence of events to someone else.

Another way to look at remember and infinitives and gerunds is sequence.


remember then action


action then remember

In using remember with gerunds and infinitives, one way to think about which one to use is to consider when the action happened. Did it happen before or after the remembering?

We can also use gerunds and infinitives together after remember.

I remember running to catch the bus.


Forget presents more of a yes and no meaning.

Infinitive: I forgot to pay the bill. (No, I did not pay the bill.)

Gerund: I forgot paying the bill. (Yes, I paid the bill.)

With forget, which feels more comfortable in the past tense, the meaning is determined by whether or not the action occurred or was done.

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