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Gerunds and Infinitives, a starter

Gerunds and infinitives are perhaps one of the most difficult topics to teach. This seemingly simple concept of turning a verb into a noun is riddled with convention, and the rules that apply are sparse. There are very few guidelines and only through the expansion of one’s vocabulary does one get comfortable with this subject. While a difficult and perhaps painful subject for an English learner, gerunds and infinitives are essential in that they open doors to richer forms of communication in the English language.

This article is aimed at teaching this subject to A2-level students. A1 students may have already been introduced to this grammar such as using a gerund as a subject, which is pretty straightforward, but A2 students should learn the basics of how gerunds and infinitives work with main verbs, which is vastly more difficult.

gerunds as subjects

Perhaps a good way to introduce this subject is to start with gerunds as subjects. I could write on the board some simple statements that students have likely seen before, such as:

  • Going shopping is boring.
  • Watching TV is fun.
  • Reading a book is interesting.
  • Exploring new countries is exciting.

I would then attempt to elicit from the students what all of these sentences have in common. They may need some help with this, so I would underline the subject, the verb and the object in each one then ask what the subjects have in common. Usually at this point I’ll get “they end in -ing”. I ask if they’ve seen this before. I’ll cross out the endings and ask what part of speech these words are. Perhaps to assuage possible confusion, I would erase everything but the subjects to draw attention to them. Ultimately I want the students to identify these words as verbs.

At this point, I would introduce the concept of a gerund where any verb can have -ing stuck to the end of it and be treated as a noun. I would say that just about any such gerund can be used in the subject of a sentence and get students to come up with more examples to be written on the board.

convention applies

Here is where it gets a little more difficult: in drawing attention back to the original example, I would re-write each sentence in that example with the gerund AFTER the main verb as in:

  • He is bored while going shopping.
  • They are watching TV.
  • This book is interesting reading.
  • New countries are exciting to explore.

Notice how the last sentence uses the infinitive. This is intentional because it serves as a segue into that topic. So here, I would ask students to find those verbs again, and identify where they are (after the main verb and in the object). I’ll point out that sometimes a gerund can go after the main verb and sometimes it cannot as in the last sentence. I ask the students why. (because new countries aren’t people). I ask if anyone knows what “to explore” is (infinitive), and what is between to be and the infinitive (an adjective).

Now for the adventurous part! We then take the sentences that the students came up with earlier and attempt to reconstruct them together with the gerund after the main verb. Some of these sentences will take the gerund as the object and others the infinitive. This is fine, because it acts as a springboard into the next part of the grammar presentation, convention.

By this time, some students will wonder why sometimes the gerund will work after the main verb and sometimes it wont. Here is a great opportunity to give a mini-lecture on convention and how it applies to the English language. Usually Turkish students will understand convention to mean tradition, and this is a good parallel. We could talk about various traditions in their culture and ask if there are any written rules about why they exist or how they are carried out. We could talk about how people know a certain tradition is “correct” and how we know it is carried out “correctly”.

One example I like to use here is about money. I ask how we know the value of money, why a lira has value. There’s no law or rule that says what its value is. Money has value only because everyone believes it does. Certain things work in English while other things don’t simply because they sound better and make sense to the native ear.

fun with infinitives

So what are infinitives, anyway? I explain that any verb has an infinitive form and can be used in the subject, but this usage is quite rare and antiquated – for example:

  • To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • To go shopping is quite fun.
  • To watch TV is boring.
  • To explore new countries is adventurous.

I encourage students to avoid this usage because it sounds awkward to the modern ear and gerunds as subjects are much better and more relevant.

We then talk about another interesting property of the infinitive – that they can be chained together, one after another to make really long sentences:

It is fun to go shopping to buy new clothes to wear to impress my friends.

In the spirit of having a little fun, we could as a group try to add more adjectives and modifiers to the sentence to give it more flavor. The point of this is to convey the possibilities of the infinitive and how it can be used to construct long and detailed sentences. If we feel really adventurous, we can attempt to construct a sentence that has infinitives with gerunds attached, such as:

Going shopping is quite fun to buy new clothes for wearing to impress my fashionable friends while going to interesting parties to have a good time drinking,

This last exercise may or may not resonate with your class. Mileage may vary. Again to the point is that learning English can be fun and silly at times, and that students should be encouraged to use this grammar to play around with the possibilities. Perhaps as a homework assignment or on a platform such as Edmodo, students could be encouraged to come up with their own versions of these sentences and I could offer corrective feedback outside of the classroom.

wrapping it up

We are now drawing toward the end of this article. There will be more on this subject because it is extensive. This article outlines a decently comprehensive lesson where this subject is introduced and I would encourage giving students a little time to digest the concepts before going further and diving into specific verbs. At the close of the lesson, I would recap the main points:

  • Gerunds are verbs with -ing and are treated as nouns.
  • Infinitives are to + verb
  • Both gerunds and infinitives can go into the subject.
  • It is better to use a gerund in the subject than an infinitive.
  • Adjectives can go between the main verb and an infinitive.
  • Infinitives can be chained together to make long sentences.
  • Some verbs work with gerunds and other work with infinities.
  • There are few rules about this, but lots of convention.

That about wraps it up for this topic for now. Again, there will be more coming and if you have any ideas of how this subject can be expanded upon, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading and I hope this lesson plan outline is useful in your teaching career.