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Gerund or infinitive: When to use which?

You like to read books.

You like reading books.

The second second sentence seems to be better than the first. Why is that?

Now consider the following two sentences.

He likes to read books.

He likes reading books.

Here they seem to be equivalent and nothing seems wrong with either of them. Neither seems better than the other?

Why does the use of "to" in the first set seem less natural?

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See Gerund or infinitive: When to use which? –  Emre Apr 10 '11 at 22:57
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I can't say I agree with your intuition--all four examples sound equally acceptable to me. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 10 '11 at 23:56
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marked as duplicate by JSBձոգչ, kiamlaluno, RegDwigнt Apr 11 '11 at 8:17

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2 Answers

Both are correct, but:

1) The first situation sounds broken, because you are informing a person about what he likes, which is strange by the principle. You never tell anyone what they like, unless they've suffered an amnesia and you are replaying all their life back to them. Who does that?

2) There is a small difference between them:

Person X likes doing Y

Means that the person does enjoy the thing in question, they take the pleasure from doing it.

Person X likes to do Y

Means that the person likes to do it for the feeling it creates, kind of. Like losing weight. You can say:

Jane likes to lose weight

Meaning she is happy she decided to do so and is doing it.

But if you say:

Janes likes losing weight

You are describing how she feels during that situation at that very moment.

EDIT:

Came up with another, more obscure example, just to prove a point. Sorry for the awful sentences.

He likes killing people.

Means that he enjoys doing it, at that very moment.

He likes to kill people.

Means that he's generally happy he's a killer and he likes to find victims and kill them.

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I'm not sure, but it seems you have misused the progressive aspect here. In your examples, the _ing words are gerunds rather than continuous verbs. Thus, they do not refer to 'right now' the way you have mentioned but rather to the activity in general. –  Karl Apr 11 '11 at 2:10
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I don't think it does, necessarily: I think this is a subjective call.

To me "He likes to read books" seems odd, and actually I associate it with written American English, but I don't know whether my association is correct or not.

[Edit]: some statistics from the corpora:

The British National Corpus has 7 instances of "likes reading", 3 of "likes to read". The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 7 of "likes reading" and 47 of "likes to read".

This seems to confirm that the preferences are different in UK and US (though the sample size is pretty small for the UK).

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If anything I think "you like reading books" sounds stranger than "you like to read books." I am American, so I suppose it's possible it's an American thing I've just never noticed/heard of before. –  kitukwfyer Apr 10 '11 at 22:53
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