I got into a discussion with another user in the comments section of this question. We disagreed over the following phrases:

I refuse running.

I decline running.

To me, they are both clearly wrong. The correct forms of the above sentences would be:

I refuse to run.

I decline to run.

It is late in my timezone and I am tired. I feel that this has something to do with "running" meaning the concept of running in general and "to run" being a particular instance but I cannot put my finger on exactly why the first sentences are wrong.

So, am I right? Are they wrong? If so, please explain why. Or am I wrong and they are correct? If so, ditto.


2 Answers 2


You are right; but there is no general rule. Each verb has its own rule; the technical term is that each verb “licenses” complements of specific types. Refuse and decline, for instance, license either nouns or infinitives, but not gerunds:

I refuse dinner. I refuse to run. but not I refuse dining.
I decline the honor. I decline to run. but not I decline accepting.

Like, on the other hand, licenses all three:

I like Jim. I like running. I like to run.

Some verbs license multiple arguments, of different sorts or the same sort:

I made him a martini. I made him angry. I made him work.

In this case, the verb has different meanings with different arguments.

You just have to learn what arguments each verb takes, just as you learn which of your friends drink beer and which whiskey (or whisky) and which only water.

  • So there is no general rule? Is it simply something that those of us born to the language just know? What if I learn a new verb? Surely there must be some guidelines. I hate it when the best thing I can say to a non-native speaker is "Well, because that's just the way it is".
    – terdon
    Jan 29, 2013 at 19:37
  • 1
    @terdon I'm afraid that just is the way it is. Language is organic, a product of historical contingency and statistical drift. And you don't "just know" it: you learned it, by hearing and reading it in use, the same way a non-native speaker does. You've just had a lot more practise. ... My wife just finished taking four semesters of French from an outstanding teacher, who brought her along far enough to read mediaeval French; she reported that about twice a week he had to tell his students "Don't ask Why. There is no Why. Just learn it." Jan 29, 2013 at 19:45
  • That is something I am perfectly willing to accept for French (I have run up against the same wall very often as a non-french native living in France), but English? Never! Joking apart, I realize that most natural languages, especially one with as varied a history as English, are perforce chaotic affairs that have been hastily thrown together over the centuries. I still feel there is a rule lurking about somewhere. If no one can offer one, I will bow to your superior experience.
    – terdon
    Jan 29, 2013 at 20:00
  • 1
    @terdon There are probably some generalities, rather than strict rules, lurking; but then you have to learn the exceptions, which sort of defeats the purpose. Jan 29, 2013 at 20:08

The general rule is that the present participle indicates that the action is in progress, whereas the infinitive refers to the action itself.

I refuse running.

I decline running.

Clearly, the action of running is not in progress, which means the present participle is not appropriate.

Same applies to "I refuse dining".

There are exceptions , for instance after verbs of movement/position (I'll go dancing), verbs of perception with an object in between (I saw bob running down the street), or after a handful of special verbs like "catch" (see this page) but refuse and decline do not fit any of the exceptions

  • Could you explain what you mean about dancing. How is it different from running? I'll go either running or dancing but I will decline neither.
    – terdon
    Jan 29, 2013 at 12:25
  • @terdon dancing is not different from running... but go is a verb of movement, which is a special case: you can use the present participle with verbs which indicate movement. "I'll go running is ok" but "I decline running is not". Check the link in the answer.
    – Sylverdrag
    Jan 29, 2013 at 14:47
  • There are no present participles in those sentences, except if you choose to interpret them as “I refuse/decline [while] running”. Jun 10, 2015 at 14:28

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