In my classes, the subject of gerunds and infinitives comes up. Students find this a confusing and frustrating subject. They accept that one can say "I like watching movies," or "I like to watch movies," but they will usually ask, "Which one should I use?" This question makes sense. I have seen most teachers answer this by saying "It doesn't matter, they both mean th same thing. Pick one that you like and use it."

I feel that there is a difference and that as native English speakers we intuitively know the difference and will choose the expression that conveys our meaning.

Sometimes, I feel that this choice is language mirroring. If someone asks you "What do you like doing," you will probably answer with the gerund, "I like watching." If they ask "What do you like to do," you will probably answer "I like to watch."

However, if you say to someone "Tell me about your interests," the person is free to answer, and some will give the gerund version and others will give the infinitive version.

My feeling is that infinitives express potential and gerunds express active things. If you say "I like to watch TV." it means that this is something you like but don't really do it that much. If you say "I like watching TV." it is probably something you do a lot. On the flip side, you could also interpret "I like watching TV." as you like the activity but it doesn't mean you do it. "I like mountain climbing," doesn't necessarily mean that I do it, have done it, or will do it.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

  • You're really asking about LIKE + VERB + ING vs LIKE + VERB + INFINITIVE Because sometimes there is no choice between the gerund and the infinitive; e.g: "I decided TO swim" and not "I decided swimming" Hence the question posted as a duplicate is a red herring. – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 4:23
  • Loosely related: What is the origin of “GO + VERB + ING”? – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 4:28
  • @tchrist please consider retracting your vote to put on hold this question. The OP is asking about meaning and usage and not "which verbs demand the gerund or the infinitive". Thanks. Although this question could be closed as being primarily opinion based... The question is very subjective. I would advise the OP to (at the least) write a more specific title. – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 4:33
  • Mari-Lou A, it could be opinion based, however I think there are underlying reasons why why choose one or the other and I think this would be very useful to know. – michael_timofeev Jul 22 '15 at 5:03
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    Mari-Lou A, ok, this is what I think but sometimes it feels like grabbing smoke rings in the dark trying to think about and explain this subject. I usually cite Hamlets soliloquy "to be or not to be" as a reason why infinitives talk about potential, however, there could be other reasons for the use of infinitives in this speech. He does say "to die, to sleep" and others, which is suggesting future possibility. – michael_timofeev Jul 22 '15 at 5:33

The verbs where you have a choice between gerund or to-infinitive is very limited, a handful I would say. Actually there is no difference whether you say I like cooking/I like to cook. But I assume the "cooking" is more frequent as you refer to a general kind of activity.

Comment added to this post
The to-infinitive has noun character. The "to" might have been the neutre form of the definite article , but gender was given up very early in English. As the gerund has verbal and noun character English has two possibilities for verb +object. The to-infinitive as object is more frequent, in some cases the speakers prefer the gerund. That is more a convential thing and a problem for learners, because there is no simple rule for gerunds in object-position.

  • You can write LIKE + VERB + ING / INFINITIVE for any activity. "I like basking in the sun"; She likes making mountains out of molehills or She likes to make a mountain out of a molehill The OP is asking is there any difference in meaning? – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 4:41
  • Rogermue, you are correct; I am asking for difference in meaning. I don't want to be directed to lists or quoted a rule. If A student asks me "why is 2+2 equal to 4?) the worst answer is "because the book says so." My students come from languages that don't have this difference so for them "are they the same?" Is a valid question and to say "yes, they are," is worse. The student can then ask, "if they are the same, why is the form so different?" Infinitives and gerunds certainly grew up differently but they do have a different meaning. I just can't find any material that addresses this. – michael_timofeev Jul 22 '15 at 4:57
  • Perhaps you ought to include the above comment in your answer. It seems your answer convinced the OP more than mine, well done. – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 6:43

I like this explanation; it may not be 100% foolproof, I haven't tested it out, but the examples shown do illustrate a significant difference in meaning

Using a gerund suggests that you are referring to real activities or experiences. Using an infinitive suggests that you are talking about potential or possible activities or experiences. Because of this small difference in meaning, gerunds and infinitives cannot always be used interchangeably, such as in the examples below.

  • The British reporter likes living in New York.
    He lives in New York and he likes what he experiences there.
  • The British reporter likes to live in New York whenever he works in the United States.
    He likes the OPTION or POSSIBILITY of living in New York when he works in the United States.
  • I like speaking French because it's such a beautiful language.
    I like the experience of speaking French, and the way it makes me feel when I speak the language.
  • I like to speak French when I'm in France.
    I prefer the OPTION of speaking French when I am in France.

Verbs Followed by Gerunds OR Infinitives Emphasis mine

Source: Englishpage.com

  • So it would seem that we need some sort of context or defining phrase to make the meaning difference clear. So if someone simply answers "I like to watch TV." There is more that is implied but is usually not said. – michael_timofeev Jul 22 '15 at 6:33
  • Seems like it, doesn't it? That's why I placed in bold the adverbs, it's the additional clarification which forces speakers to choose one form over the other. However, if someone said "I like speaking French whenever I'm in France" I wouldn't object fiercely. – Mari-Lou A Jul 22 '15 at 6:35
  • Thanks...this really helps clarify my thinking and gives me some ammo for class that students can relate to...seems they don't like Hamlet as an example. – michael_timofeev Jul 22 '15 at 6:43

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