Given the example:

I have trouble speaking English.

Can we use both present participle (speaking) and to-infinitive (to speak) after have trouble? If both are allowed, do the two have the same meaning or not?

2 Answers 2


No, you may not use the to-infinitive after to have trouble. You may only use the -ing form. You can think of it as an abbreviated version of this:

I have trouble with speaking English.

And for the most part, to-infinitives make poor objects of prepositions; for that were gerunds invented.

  • 2
    The with is optional. I have trouble speaking English is fine, as is I always have trouble starting the car in January, She had trouble explaining it to them, and I don't know why you have trouble doing that. Dec 27, 2012 at 3:50
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    @JohnLawler I hope I did not accidentally imply that with with is mandatory. I just find it easier to make sense of if I think of it as being there.
    – tchrist
    Dec 27, 2012 at 3:53

In many other languages, what might usually be translated as "to verb" in English is in fact one word – parler, sprechen, говорить etc. – whilst in English they are two words, and so usage naturally evolved differently. The fact that the verbal noun is identical to the infinitive in French, German, Russian etc., but the present participle in English shows that they are thought of differently in these languages. Cases are arbitrarily split in English between the infinitive and the verbal noun, which are identical when translated into most other languages. There are cases, e.g. "I want to speak", where to is used as a nonce to form the infinitive, where that form is used. But there are also cases where the verbal noun, i.e. speaking, e.g. I have trouble speaking English, is idiomatic. It really depends on the verb, and has developed through usage, rather than through strict rules.

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