#amwriting: verbs, gerunds, and infinitives

Hamlet Poster Benedict CumberbatchA dear friend and I have been discussing gerunds. “Gerund” is a term (from our roots in Latin grammar) for a verb form that functions as a noun. Gerunds are nouns formed from verbs and they describe actions.

The gerund in English is usually identified by the addition of the three letters “ing” added at the end of an infinitive. For example:

  • “to be” is changed to “being”
  • “to eat” is changed to “eating”

So what is an infinitive? Basically, an infinitive verb is a verb with the word “to” in front of it:

  • to be
  • to have
  • to hold
  • to walk
  • to dream
  • to sleep

Without the word “to,” each of the above words is just a base verb. They are finite, limited. They are the action, end of story. When you add the word “to” in front of the action it is no longer finite—it becomes unlimited, or infinite: an infinitive. This lack of boundaries creates a passive voice when telling a story, and for some narratives it is appropriate.

However, we want our work to have an active voice if we are writing modern genre fiction, so we must do our best to avoid the overuse of infinitives.

When we first begin sharing our work in writers’ groups, we are shown instances of where the use of infinitives creates a passive narrative, separating the reader from the action. We choose to combat that by eliminating as many instances of these words as we can, and in some places, changing them into a more active form: the gerund.

A side bit of trivia: in modern speech, expressions such as “can’t stand,” “couldn’t help,” and “it’s no use” are frequently followed by gerunds:

  • I can’t stand running in place.
  • It’s no use harping at me; I won’t change my mind.

Traditionally, the gerund has four forms: two for the active voice and two for the passive. Consider the word “love,” a word that can either be a thing (a noun) or an action (a verb). For this exercise we are looking at the verb form:


You will note that one form is referred to as “Perfect” and you are wondering how this relates to our gerund. The word perfect literally means “made complete” or “completely done.” Thus, the three perfect tenses in English are the three verb tenses which show action already completed.

  • Present Perfect: I have seen it. (This is done. Finished. End of story).
  • Past Perfect: I had seen it. (It happened in the past. It’s done, so get over it.)
  • Future Perfect: I will have seen it. (Okay, it’s not done yet, but when it is, I will be the one to report that it is finished).

Consequently, having loved indicates that the act of loving is completed.

I mentioned that we sometimes avoid using a passive voice, by changing infinitives to gerunds.  But when should we NOT use a gerund? This just came up in my own work, prompting this bit of research:

One of my personal first-draft sins is the infamous “subject-less gerund-participial clause that is left hanging in space without an understood subject (this is known as the dangling participle). It happens to me most often when I begin a sentence with a gerund:

Being desperately poor, chocolate was scarce, as was milk.

In MY mind, as the writer, the word “being” in the above sentence relates to my character’s poverty. But a reader might stop and say “Huh? What?” To clarify that, I should say, The family was desperately poor. Chocolate was scarce, as was milk.”

GerundsThis tendency to inadvertently create confusion is why I try not to start a sentence with a gerund, unless it is the only way to express that thought and can be done in a clear, unambiguous fashion.

Also, we should not use gerunds with infinitives (to be, to do, etc.) UNLESS the word “to” is being used as a preposition. Remember this quick trick: if you can put the pronoun “it” after the word “to” and form a meaningful sentence, then the word “to” in that instance is a preposition.

For example:

  • to look forward to (it)
  • to be accustomed to (it)
  • to get around to (it)
  • to be used to (it)

It is important to recognize that the word “to” is a preposition in these cases because it must be followed by a gerund. It is not part of the infinitive form of the verb. (Prepositions may be defined as any word or group of words that relates a noun or a pronoun to another word in the sentence.)

An excellent page on this subject can be found at the University of Victoria’s ELC Study Zone: Gerunds. A quote from this page regarding gerunds and prepositions:

“But… only gerunds can be the object of a preposition.

“We are talking about writing in English.” (end quote)

I graduated from high school, but my formal education was somewhat lacking in this area. Either I was staring out the window when the teachers were talking about proper use of gerunds, or it wasn’t a subject we discussed–I don’t know. But somehow I didn’t pick up on it then.

Forty years on, I’ve formed certain writing habits and often use gerunds incorrectly in my first, second and even third drafts, which leads to confusing prose. The words made perfect sense when I wrote them, and I can’t catch them all when I am making revisions.

This is why a sharp beta reader and a good line-editor are lifesavers.


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5 responses to “#amwriting: verbs, gerunds, and infinitives

  1. Stephen

    Congratulations! You have earned your English Teacher certification!


  2. Very helpful, Connie, thank you.
    When I was at school we were going through a phase of ‘don’t teach them things in any formal fashion – they will pick it up as they go along’. This applied to all subjects, English and Maths included, leaving my education sadly lacking. I have, indeed, picked much of it up by reading excellent novels, but having it explained like this is a great help too 😀