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I have a friend from Russia who is trying to learn English and recently used the sentence "He tried to help me learning..." (implied: the English language)

It is obviously wrong and I corrected it telling her that she was supposed to say: "He tried to help me learn.", but I have a hard time explaining to her why it is incorrect since I'm not an expert on grammar either.

Is it a case of confusing the present simple and present continuous or does it have something to do with gerunds and infinitives? Any help would be highly appreciated!

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Could you complete the sentence and add what your correction would be? I'm not convinced that it is necessarily wrong. –  Andrew Leach Sep 13 '12 at 15:47
    
His mistake makes even less sense seeing how in Russian, too, you'd use the infinitive in that position. Perhaps you should start by pointing that out to him and asking what his justification for the present participle is at all. –  RegDwigнt Sep 13 '12 at 15:54
    
She just told me that she knew a guy from GB once who "tried to help her learning." and my correction was: "Tried to help you learn." Thanks so far! –  Maryvel Sep 13 '12 at 15:57
    
In "He tried to help her learning," learning could be a gerund. –  Andrew Leach Sep 13 '12 at 16:01
    
But wouldn't it be "He tried to help her with learning," then? –  Maryvel Sep 13 '12 at 16:02
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3 Answers

The problem is with the type of catenation patterns help governs.

Many verbs in English catenate (form allowed strings):

He sat reading.

He started to cry.

He helped wash up.

He helped to wash up.

He helped us wash up.

He helped us to wash up.

There are several patterns, and different patterns are allowed for different verbs.

"He tried to help me learning..." has a string of three catenated verbs, with an interposed object (me). The first catenation (He tried to help [me] ) is fine - tried catenates with a to-infinitive, as here, or an -ing form (obviously, the -ing form has to be nearer the verbal, participial, end of the spectrum for catenation of verbs to apply - see below). They have slightly different meanings.

However, help normally catenates with a bare infinitive or to-infinitive, so "He tried to help me learn..." or "He tried to help me to learn..." would be used.

Help does catenate in one construction with an -ing form: I can't help loving you - but help here means avoid / give up. Help also appears in similar-looking constructions with more-nounal -ing forms: This drug is given to help breathing.

A good article is at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:English_catenative_verbs - although the 'present participle/gerund form' mysteriously suddenly narrows to the 'gerund form'. The Quirk umpteen-point gradience along the verb - noun continuum for -ing forms is, I believe, a more accurate model, so I prefer the cover term '-ing form'.

That's the grammar, but using the infinitives loses the progressive sense. A rewrite would be:

I was learning English - and he was trying to help me.

Or, if we do not wish to stress a continued duration of the attempt to help:

I was learning English - and he tried to help me.

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Thank you so much! That's really helpful. –  Maryvel Sep 13 '12 at 16:22
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The confusion arises because of the way English uses the gerund, a noun identical in form to the infinitive. It is possible (though in my view unidiomatic) to use help my learning to mean roughly the same as help my education. Note that though you can say help my educating, you can't use it here; it would mean help me to educate other people.

However, precisely because a gerund is a noun, the pronoun before it would be my, not me. So the gerund form is, in fact a red herring; there is no way 'he helped me learning' can be grammatical.

(A further source of confusion is that her does not inflect, so both he helped her learn and he helped her learning are grammatical, though they mean different things; but this is not important for the main point.)

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I'm not sure I disagree with anything in kiamlaluno's answer, but I think you've put your finger on the key point. You can help him in learning English, and (just about) help his learning English, but whilst not unknown, OP's version doesn't really pass muster to the careful native speaker's ear. –  FumbleFingers Sep 13 '12 at 23:21
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In the sentence you wrote, learning is a gerund, not present continuous; the present continuous would be "she is learning."

Help is normally used as in the following sentences:

Mary's companion helped her with the rent.

She helped him find a buyer.

Mary helped out in the corner store.

Searching for phrases matching help <personal pronoun> <gerund> on the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I found the following sentences.

Stephanie was able to identify notes, but it didn't help her playing.

If not, there are other tricks he can try: spinning the hull against the sphere's fixed inner platform, or even God help them popping open the hatch to serve as a kind of fin or rudder.

My triffle is to help me following you, so we get there.

And at certain point, I decided I couldn't make a great deal of difference in the world of chess anymore, but my presence in Russia, in my native land, could help us fighting for democracy.

So, this only tells us about the survivors and it can't really help us making the decisions at the bedside.

Those sentences are very minimal, compared with the phrase matching help <personal pronoun> <infinitive>.

Notice that cannot help, and could not help are used to also mean cannot avoid, and could not avoid, as in the following sentences:

She could not help laughing.

You can't help but agree.

Cannot help oneself, and could not help oneself are used to mean "cannot stop oneself from acting in a certain way," and "could not stop oneself from acting in a certain way" as in the following sentence.

She couldn't help herself; she burst into tears.

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