I recall being taught that normally after adjectives we use the "to infinitive": It's easy to say. It's hard to do. But how do the following examples fall into this rule? "It was great talking to you." "It's been nice meeting you."

I've been tutoring students in English as a second language, and I'm failing to find a "simple" justification for the two types of sentences (as, obviously, I am myself struggling to understand).

Very many thanks! Mel.

  • You should probably have a look at this page. englishpage.com/gerunds/part_3.htm – WordsWorth Oct 20 '13 at 18:07
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    Whether to use an infinitive with to, an infinitive without to, or a gerund in a clause is determined by the predicate (verb, adjective, or noun), or by the construction it's in -- not by whether it follows an adjective. Different adjectives take different complements and participate in different constructions. There is no "easy rule". And the examples you give are complex sentences with a lot of material deleted and implied; short sentences are generally very complex syntax, if they're not immediately transparent, like Bill kicked the ball. – John Lawler Oct 20 '13 at 21:19
  • In this case "talking" and "to talk" are virtually identical in meaning. However "I am happy to do X" is subtly different from "I am happy doing X". The latter implies actual experience while the former could be used of a future or hypothetical activity. – user24964 Oct 21 '13 at 10:16
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    John Lawler is completely correct here. Were his comment an answer, I'd say you should choose him – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 21:45

In the past, Nice to meet you was considered the proper response to an introduction or short conversation with someone new. But like everything else, language changes and "Nice meeting you" is perfectly acceptable.

Since great is not on the list, there is no reason it can't be followed by a gerund, so, again, you're safe there.

I have not been able to find the rule you gave. However I have found a list of adjectives that require the "to + infinitive". They are:

adjectives expressing emotion, e.g. angry, disappointed, glad, sad, happy, anxious, pleased, surprised, proud, unhappy, confused, befuddled...

adjectives of ability or willingness, e.g. able, unable, due, eager, keen, likely, unlikely, ready, prepared, unwilling, willing...

adjectives used to express opinions, e.g. to give opinions: difficult, easy, possible, impossible, hard, right, wrong, kind, nice, clever, silly, foolish...

adjectives referring to difficulty, e.g. difficult, easy, possible, impossible, hard

when using the preposition "of" with other adjectives:

It’s kind of you to help. It would be silly of him to spend all his money.

This was all I could find. Sorry.

Source: British Council

  • Angry to _____? – Moss Dec 7 '13 at 17:21
  • Thanks, I just couldn't think of any examples. Looks like they are all cases of "realization", where the angry person is an experiencer. As opposed to other ones like I am happy to tell you.... – Moss Dec 7 '13 at 19:53

You could think of talking to you as being like an adverb:

I had a great time talking to you.

It was great talking to you.

You could, at a stretch, also consider talking to you as being like a noun:

Talking to you was great.

It was great talking to you.

This is non-standard, but many idioms are.

Either way, the same meaning is conveyed, so I don't think there's any need to complicate matters by looking for the "distinction without a difference".

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    I guess I would tell students that "It was (great / fun) (meeting / seeing / talking to / etc.) you." is a common non-standard construction. – Pitarou Dec 7 '13 at 10:43
  • In what way is it non-standard? – Moss Dec 7 '13 at 17:17

It depends on your adjective. Saying "after adjectives we use the to infinitive" is silly as far as rules go. Obviously you don't need a to-infinitive after adjectives. In fact normally after adjectives come the nouns they are describing: black cat.

When an adjective is functioning as the predicate of a sentence, such as I am mad, then you can often (usually optionally) add a prepositional phrase or an infinitive clause or a full clause linked by that, depending on the adjective.

Examples:

  1. I am mad about the game.
  2. I am mad at you.
  3. I am sorry (that) I killed you cat.
  4. She was hungry for meat. (usually hungry doesn't have anything after it)
  5. It is unusual to have so many cats.
  6. *She was unusual to eat cats.
  7. It was strange that she ate cats.
  8. It was unusual for her to eat cats. (Different meaning.)
  9. It was nice of Bob to buy her a new cat.
  10. *Bob was nice to buy her a new cat.
  11. I am sick and tired of hearing about cats.
  12. I am fond of dogs, myself.
  13. He is hard of hearing. (Now an idiomatic expression. Presumably it was normal in someones dialect at some point.)
  14. These examples are many in number. (Somewhat idiomatic.)
  15. They are overwhelmed with options. (Overwhelmed is a past participle.)
  16. The student are confused by the intricacies of English. (Also a past participle. Most people would probably say these are just passive clauses, but they follow the same pattern as the other examples.)

I don't know what secret rules there may be for which adjectives can have which types of complements when. It seems that "objective" adjectives like tall, shiny, round, furry don't usually allow complements. But you can often tack on a peripheral prepositional phrase anyway. For example: You look lovely in that dress, I am delirious from lack of sleep. It is probably best for an English learner to consult a dictionary or search the web for examples of a particular adjective if they want to know.

Also note that "It-Cleft constructions", like examples 5,7,8,9 play by different rules. (It was) nice to meet you is a cleft construction.

Oh, but your question was about to-infinitive vs gerund... I think they are often quite interchangeable. Certainly with it-clefts they seem to be: it was nice seeing you again*/it was nice to see you again*. I think we wouldn't say it was nice to talk to you just because it sounds a bit awkward to say to twice.

  1. It feels strange to stand here.
  2. ?It feels strange standing here.
  3. I feel strange standing here.
  4. *I feel strange to stand here.
  5. I am happy to help. <-- better
  6. I am happy helping.
  7. It makes me angry just thinking about it.
  8. ?It makes me angry just to think about it.

I don't know. Language doesn't really have rules, it has tendencies, which are often very finicky and apparently arbitrary.

  • I would not have put question marks before #2 and #8: they are perfectly idiomatic to me (#8 perhaps slightly less so). In 1/2 and 7/8, the infinitive/gerund is simply the subject in the clause (with a preliminary subject in ‘it’), which explains why both are equally possible (gerund preferred because of ‘just’). In 3/4, the verb needs to be in an adjectival form, since it is the predicative to the subject—‘standing’ is not a gerund, but a present participle. In 5/6, the infinitive expresses intention or purpose, which a gerund cannot do; it is basically equivalent to ‘in order to’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 '13 at 23:11
  • What is your dialect? I am from Western Canada. Your explanation for 3/4 makes sense but I don't really agree about 5/6. Does "I am happy helping" sound wrong to you? – Moss Dec 11 '13 at 19:17
  • No, not wrong at all—but “I am happy standing here” and “I am happy to stand here” mean two different things. The infinitive implies purpose, whereas the participle simply functions like a kind of adjective describing the subject. My accent is a bit of a hotchpotch/hodgepodge of both fairly neutral Broadcast American and fairly neutral RP. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 11 '13 at 20:10
  • Ah. When you say it with 'standing' it is more clear. – Moss Dec 18 '13 at 2:36

The simple justification is that your sentences (though you give only one type – 'talk to' = 'address' grammatically) using the -ing form are grammatical, of a commonly used form, and the 'normally' descriptor (how did that become a 'rule'?) you remember being taught was a gross over-simplification.

Below are listed three examples, where the semantic cohesion ('tie-in') between the adjective and the -ing form becomes progressively stronger, as shown by the non-paraphrases and near paraphrases:

I sat there exhausted, listening to him.

I was exhausted. I sat there, listening to him.

?!?Listening to him made me feel exhausted.

(I think P&H call the -ing clause in this type of sentence, the sentence being readily separated into two sentences, a 'supplement'.'Exhausted' and 'listening to him' are serial and independent modifiers.)

I felt uneasy listening to him.

??I was/felt uneasy. I sat there, listening to him.

Listening to him made me feel uneasy.

(Here, 'listening to him' makes 'me feel uneasy'.)

I found it easy listening to him.

*/??I was easy / I felt at ease. I sat there, listening to him.

*/??Listening to him made me feel at ease / easy.

Listening to him was so easy./ I found listening to him easy.

(Here, 'easy' describes how 'listening to him' was perceived.)

I'm not even going to try to attribute noun-verb percentages to each of the -ing forms here, but they are not all the same. The last is certainly a gerund, but I wouldn't use that term for all the instances.

  • You haven't touched on infinitives at all. Infinitives can be used in place of gerunds in all of your examples. The last one doesn't even require a re-write: I sat there, too exhausted to listen to him, I felt too uneasy to listen to him, I found it easy to listen to him. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 21:42

Talking is the present tense verb. It is the same as to talk, except it is a verb and happening in the present tense. Notice that in the sentence It was great talking to you. the word was is the verb. talking to you is a prepositional phrase. That rule is a basic rule taught in grade school, you could also say It's hard for you. because is is the verb and the rest is a prepositional phrase. I hope this answers your question! :)

  • First, talking is not a verb; it's a gerund. Second, talking to you is a noun clause. You're confusing noun clauses and prepositional phrases. Talking isn't a preposition either. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 21:39
  • I'm not even sure what this answer is saying, but the more popular linguistic theories these days would say that the predicate of It was great talking to you would be great. was is simply the copular auxiliary (it has no semantic meaning). talking to you is a gerund clause. – Moss Dec 7 '13 at 19:26

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