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Infinitive and present participle can be used to modify the noun:

  1. Infinitive:
    I had no time to read those books.
  2. Present participle:
    There should be a law banning abortion.

In (1), "to read those books" modifies time, and in (2) "banning abortion" a law. It is often said that infinitive is used to refer to the event in the future, while present participle is used to refer to the event happening in reality.

In (2), however, the sentence refers to the future because there is no law which bans abortion when this is uttered. Nevertheless, the present participle is felicitously used. The same thing holds of (3):

 3. I don't want a nanny bringing up our baby. — Sydney Sheldon, Tell me your dreams

In (3), also, the event of a nanny's bringing up a baby belongs to the future. Nevertheless, the present participle is used.

In these cases, can you say "there should be a law to ban abortion" or "I don't want a nanny to bring up our baby"? If the answer is no, why the present participle, but not infinitive, is used?

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What if the answer is yes? –  Jim Oct 6 '12 at 5:39
    
Beyond grammar, you may not have considered the semantic implications of using 'to (verb)'. That changes the complexion of the whole question. To that extent, the question, I'd say, is not well-formed. –  Kris Oct 6 '12 at 5:45
    
To Jim, if the answer is yes, I'll take it as truth. I'll ask you whether there is a difference in meaning. –  foolnloof Oct 6 '12 at 7:47
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A comment to go with my edit: these are not gerunds. These are present participles. A gerund is a present participle functioning as a noun. In other words, if you can't replace an -ing form with a noun, it is not a gerund. Only in your third example can the -ing form be analyzed as a noun (and the question remains, if it should be). Also, there is no reason whatsoever to put either term in quotes. –  RegDwigнt Oct 6 '12 at 10:35
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@Kris: It's a real question. What is the difference between "a crusade to ban all immoral books" and "a crusade banning all immoral books"? Between "a wild animal to attack the campers" and "a wild animal attacking the campers"? Between "a time to gather stones together" and "a time gathering stones together"? Certainly somebody can say something about this. –  Peter Shor Oct 6 '12 at 13:31
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3 Answers 3

First of all, you are wrong. Gerunds and infinitives are not time dependent and could be used in the present, past or future.

That said, the use of gerund v. infinitive is an important topic and is often difficult to tell when to use one over the other, as it would depend on the context and intention of the writer.

Sometimes, they could be used interchangeably with little or no difference in meaning. While other times that may not be the case. I will lay down the general rules and leave it up to you to decide when to use one over the other.

1. With little or no difference in meaning

It started to rain v. It started raining. There is no difference in meaning. They both more or less mean the same thing, but if you want to get picky, the gerund form focuses on the continuation of the action while the other one focuses on the action or result of the action in general.

2. With difference in meaning

I remembered to do my homework v. I remembered doing my homework. In the first one you remembered first, then did your homework; while in the second one you did the homework first and then remembered doing it.[Again not a big difference but still an important one]

I stopped smoking v. I stopped to smoke. In the first one the action is real, it happened and you stopped doing it. While in the second one, you stopped something else to do the smoking; it hadn't happened yet.1

Now, as I said, the general rule to use one over the other will depend on the context, but gerunds are usually used for actions that are real, completed, or concrete while infinitives are used for actions that are unreal, abstract, or future.2

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Thank you very much. It is easy to understand the case where gerunds or infinitives come after the VERB. How about the case in which they come after the NOUN? Do you say "there should be a law to ban abortion"? –  foolnloof Oct 6 '12 at 7:50
    
@foolnrony: Yes. I don't see any problem with that. –  Noah Oct 6 '12 at 8:20
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Generally, after a noun, the construction to verb indicates intention.

Consider:

They released a wild animal to attack the campers.
They discovered a wild animal attacking the campers.

In the first one, the wild animal was deliberately released in order to attack the campers. In the second, you can't use to attack because there's no intention involved (except on the wild animal's part, which doesn't count for this construction).

Now, consider:

a law to ban abortion

gives the purpose of the law, and

a law banning abortion

says what the law does. In this case, there's not that much difference in meaning. However, you would have to say

accidentally passed a law banning surgery

and not

*accidentally passed a law to ban surgery

because if it was an accident, there wasn't any intention involved. Indeed, Google finds lots of constructions of "accidentally passed a law *verb*ing" and very few of "accidentally passed a law to verb".

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Time is completely irrelevant to your examples. One important distinction is that in your second example, the present participle is hiding the relative pronoun.

A law banning abortion

means

A law that bans abortion.

In most cases, you cannot use the infinitive for this purpose. "A man wearing a hat" is "A man that wears a hat" and cannot be described as "A man to wear a hat".

Confusingly, you can, in some contexts, say "A law to ban abortion", as in

I will introduce a law to ban abortion

However, while "a law to ban abortion" would be "a law banning abortion", I would argue that "to ban" means, in this context, "in order to ban".

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