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Have in mind what you want to take a picture of beforehand - shoot a single shot rather than taking many random pictures.

I came across this sentence and I'm confused about the verb following "rather than", it's in the -ing form but is it possible to have it in the infinitive as well?

I looked it up in my grammar book and it says that when using "rather than", the words before and after it should match, so the format should be infinitive-rather than-infinitive. But this is in the imperative. What is the rule for this?

3 Answers 3

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Rather than is used both as a conjunction for infinitives and as a preposition.

In this example, rather than is a preposition, with a gerund as its object:

Shoot a single shot rather than taking many random pictures.

Here it's a conjunction linking the infinitives to shoot and to take:

She wanted to shoot a single shot rather than take many random pictures.

You can use rather than as a conjunction anywhere you can use an infinitive, including the bare infinitive of the imperative mood. (The verb following rather than is always a bare infinitive.)

In other contexts, use rather than as a preposition with a gerund. Note that some people object to rather than as a preposition, preferring instead of for the non-infinitive uses.

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  • I wouldn't class taking as a 'gerund' in Shoot a single shot rather than taking many random pictures - it echoes (I think that term hasn't been allotted a precise grammatical sense yet) shoot rather than single shot. It's too far towards the verb end of the noun - verb continuum to be labelled gerund. Thus, I'm also having difficulty accepting rather than as a (compound) preposition here. In Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie rather than go dancing it is very difficult to claim prepositionality. And I believe rather than is more a subordinator with the -ing form also. May 21, 2013 at 9:04
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    @EdwinAshworth In “go to a movie rather than go dancing,” rather than is a conjunction linking two infinitives (go and go), not a preposition. The preposition + gerund form would be “go to a movie rather than going dancing.” I'm not sure what your objection is to calling it a gerund: It's an –ing verb serving grammatically as the object of a preposition, a noun. What else would you call it? (Also note that American Heritage calls it a gerund in the linked article at the end.) May 21, 2013 at 9:18
  • Ah, but it's an -ing form serving semantically more like a verb. And the grammar would be inconsistent: “go to a movie rather than leisure / lancers / book / ball-game”. Typical nouns do not work here (apart from in to-PPs with the to elided: "go to a movie rather than (to) school). May 21, 2013 at 10:20
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    @EdwinAshworth “I'd like to go to a movie rather than a ball game” is fine. The other examples are wrong because of semantics and parallelism, not grammar. They wouldn't work with the preposition instead of either. To return to the earlier example: Dancing is a gerund in “I'd like (to go to a movie rather than) dancing,” with or without the parenthesized phrase. May 21, 2013 at 10:52
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    @EdwinAshworth There's nothing wrong with the grammar of “I'd like (to go to a movie rather than) cake”; it's just terrible style because it subverts parallelism. In contrast, “I'd like (to go to a movie rather than) dancing” sets up a parallel between two non-finite verbs, the infinitive to go and the gerund dancing. I honestly don't see what's objectionable about it or what's odd about calling it a gerund. It's a non-finite verb in the role of a noun, which makes it a gerund. May 21, 2013 at 21:49
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You've checked a grammar book & it gave you the answer you're looking for:

"Shoot a single shot rather than take many random pictures"

is normal, standard, formal written English, but people don't speak English the way they write it; rather, they write it the way they speak it.

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  • That's only half the story though – rather than can be a conjunction or a preposition. May 21, 2013 at 5:05
  • @Bradd: It's standard practice to cite references for this sort of claim & to give examples of how the usage rules for one form differs from those for the other. Otherwise, it's just a personal opinion with no support. No one can read your mind, & some of us prefer parallel structures regardless of whether we're using conjunctions or prepositions. If you're not going to tell the other half of the story, at least provide a pointer to where it is told.
    – user21497
    May 21, 2013 at 5:12
  • Sorry, I figured you already knew that rather than was also a preposition, with an example in the original question (which is why it uses a participle rather than an infinitive). I wasn't sure whether you were acknowledging the other version as acceptable, or qualifying that it's only acceptable in speech. May 21, 2013 at 5:20
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    @Bradd: The dictionary entry shows parallel construction in its examples. M-W's Dictionary of English Usage (pp 797-798) says that when the phrases on either side are parallel, rather than is a conjunction. It also says that using a gerund after rather than is common, standard English. The fact is, both forms are used & seem acceptable. The dispute seems to be based on etymology rather than on current usage. If usage dictates what we can write in formal English--that's what the CGEL claims--then either form is acceptable. I accept both forms but use parallelism where possible.
    – user21497
    May 21, 2013 at 5:58
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    @Bradd: I hadn't read your answer before responding to your comment. Sorry about that. You gave references. I apologize for being too quick on the trigger. My problem, not yours.
    – user21497
    May 21, 2013 at 6:03
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I think I would disagree

Consider this sentence

"Rather than tell/telling the truth, the children tried to fix the mistake on their own."

The question comes down to "Does the sentence mean ...

a/ Because the children prefer to lie, they decided to try and fix their mistakes on their own."

or

b/ The children should have told the truth, but they decided to try and fix their mistakes on their own."

Probably - it's b

Linguists (and yes, I am one) may well appear to say that EITHER one is OK but with "tell" - 'rather than' is a conjunction with 'telling' - 'rather than' is a preposition

but that just smells bad ... another word 'dictating' what they syntactical function is?

More likely, there is a difference in meaning

as such ... though we absolutely DO (and can) use either (fair enough)

only one is likely to be technically (in a semantic sense) ... right

and here - that is "telling," not "tell."

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