How do native English speakers know when to use a gerund or an infinitive? The short answer is, we just know. We hear our parents, siblings, and school chums use the verb correctly so we don't have to think about it. But that doesn't help much when you are learning English as a foreign language, does it? You can take the guesswork out of knowing which form to use by following these three simple steps.


1. Follow the rules.  


One way to shorten your learning curve is to learn some simple rules.  Once you know these rules, it will be easier to know whether to use the gerund or the infinitive.


  • Gerunds usually function as nouns in a sentence and often answer the question, “What?  Example: She likes walking in the park.  What does she like?  Walking.
  • Use a gerund for activities and sports following the word “go.”  Example: My friends and I like to go swimming.  We often go horseback riding.
  • Use the gerund with the verb “be” when talking about something that is happening now or for a future plan.  (Present continous tense.) I am eating lunch now.  I am moving to Hollywood after I graduate from college.
  • Never use an infinitive directly after the subject of the sentence. You need to use “be.” Incorrect: I walking to school this morning. Correct: I am walking to school this morning. Incorrect: We having fun. Correct: We are having fun.
  • Use the infinitive after the verb "be" with states of being.  Example: He is excited to meet the famous author.  We are delighted to have you join us for dinner.


2. Use your good sense.


Children who grow up hearing English don't need to memorize any lists because they hear correct English spoken everyday. Unfortunately, memorization is essential for foreign language learners. The brain is like a file cabinet. If you open up a random drawer and toss the file in without any thought to where it's located, you'll have a hard time finding the file again. The idea is to store the information in a way that makes it easy to retrieve when you need it. One way to help with retrieval is by filing it into your brain using your strongest learning modality.


For example, if you are a visual learner, you'll benefit by reading the words on your list(s). But if you're an auditory learner, read your list ALOUD. Do this at least five to ten minutes each day. (When learning a language it is more effective to practice ten minutes every day rather than to study sixty minutes once a week.)


If you prefer, you can write the word list. Writing stimulates the natural strengths of kinesthetic learners. If your strong sense is kinesthetic, you learn by doing something physical. Something as simple as walking as you're reading the list or making flashcards can provide the physical component that you need.


3. Drill, baby, drill.


One way to remember the difference is to memorize the list of verbs followed by gerunds or verbs followed by infinitives.  The problem is, there are a lot of lists to memorize and it can be boring! There are lists of gerunds and infinitives to use when following a noun as well as those that follow an adjective. Then there are lists of verbs that change their meaning (or not) when they are followed by a gerund or an infinitive. The lists go on and on. Even though memorizing lists can be confusing and cumbersome, I wouldn't scrap this method altogether. This website provides you with lists of gerunds and infinitives in every situation as well as practice exercises.


Another great way to memorize words is to use a vocabulary app. If you download an app (like Quizlet) to your smartphone, you can take it with you wherever you go. So you can turn the time you're waiting in line or at the dentist's office into productive learning time, simply by reviewing your gerund and infinitive lists. The great thing about using a good app is that it's programmed to repeat your new vocabulary at regular interviews. Some experts say that you must see new vocabulary 15-20 times before it's set in your memory. In general, limit your word list to 10-15 new words per day. Anything less won't challenge you and anything more could be frustrating. Aim for enough words to keep from being bored but not so many that you feel overwhelmed.


4. Memorize the shortest list first.


If you look at the list of  “nouns that are followed by gerunds,” you will see that it's a very long list. So rather, than memorize all those words, go for the shorter list, “Nouns that are followed by infinitives.” An example of such a noun is “opportunity.” For example, the opportunity to travel came with the job. Since this is a short list, you can get through it rather quickly and chances are, if the noun is not listed here, you will use the gerund.


Practice these four steps and soon you'll be able to know whether to use a gerund or infinitive without having to think too much about it.  When that happens, you'll be well on your way to speaking like a native.


Hero image by Thought Catalog on Unsplash