The Total Process – ‘verb+ing or infinitive?’ – once and for all.

18 03 2012

I was asked this week by @easyteach, when they should use propose + infinitive and when they should use propose + verb+ing.   Well, let’s look first at the general meaning of infinitives and verb+ing  and then see if it holds up for proposing. 

The whole debate between verb+ing and infinitive use is one that has raged for years, with most course book stating there is no rule and we need to learn each possibility as a collocation.  In the same way, many argue that I like playing and I like to play mean the same thing – well, if they did, why do we have two ways of saying it?  They mean similar things, but there is a difference and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone explain it satisfactorily (see G is for Gerund for many valiant but unsatisfactory attempts).  So @easyteach has given me the excuse to give it a go myself.   This is the way I teach the difference and my students have no trouble understanding it and have never found an exception to the rules – can you?

For me the infinitive is the unmarked form – like the simple aspect – and is used when there is no specific need to use another form.  The infinitive / simple aspect describes a state or action in its totality and can be seen as atomic (in so much as it cannot be divided up into smaller states or actions), which is the main reason why I prefer to denote the simple as a circle on timelines rather than a cross, as seems to be commonly accepted, since a circle seems to depict better the totality or non-divisibility of the event.  So we use the infinitive when we are talking about the simple fact of an action in its totality.

The continuous form, on the other hand, and the continuous aspect generally, focus on the progress of the action and the speaker is emphasizing the fact that the event or the state (although much less often) can be broken down into the constituent parts that make up that progress.

And so we tend to choose to say I like watching football, because we want to emphasise that we enjoy most of the aspects that watching football entails – the trip to the stadium, the dodgy pre-match burger, the anticipation of the event, the singing along, the celebration of the goals etc. all of the match day rituals need to be and are emphasized in the simple choice of -ing form over infinitive. 

Watching football?

When we are focused on another aspect of the statement however, we want to take away the importance of the nuts and bolts of the event and just treat it as a uniform totality, and so we use the infinitive (or the simple aspect when we need to conjugate).  And so we would say I like to watch football, perhaps, in answer to the question ‘What do you watch most on television?’ since the speaker is not focused on the beauties and intricacies of the ritual that is watching football, but is thinking much more about the watching of television and the events he watches when he has it switched on.

The ‘rule’ holds up when we consider the verbs which change their meaning depending on the following verb being an infinitive or -ing form.  We remember posting the letter because we can remember the whole process – we went to the post office, we stood in the queue, we bought the stamps, we gave them a good licking, we popped the envelopes in the box….but when we say we need to remember to post the letter, we don’t care about the process of posting a letter, we just care about the totality of the event – we want the letter to be posted, whether or not the process involves a good licking. 

To post or not posting?

So what about proposing?  I wasn’t given any examples, so let’s stringnet the phrases and see what comes up:

1 So where do you propose to send her?’Here the important information is the ‘Where?’, we’re not interested in the process of sending her, just the destination, so therefore we use the unmarked form.
2 She said,‘ Well, when do you propose to go and see her?’Again, the ‘When?’ is important, not the process of the going.
3 ‘Oh,’ Harrison’s voice was tinged with sarcasm,‘and how do you propose to do that?’This is more interesting, since it’s possible to ask, if we ask ‘How?’ aren’t we interested in the process?  Well, according to the speaker’s choice of to do, no, we’re not (yet) interested in the process, we’re not expecting the answerer to launch into a detailed explanation of the process of doing it, just an overall summary – perhaps, outlining the main action to be done.   This is also true for example 4 below, and 5 is like 2, so let’s jump to example 6, our first example of propose + verb+ing
4 ‘ If Kinsella steals from the IRB fund, how do you propose to blazon the news abroad?’
5 ‘ When do you propose to arrest him, sir?’
6 How do you propose correcting errors identified in 7.1.2:Here we are interested in the process of correcting the errors, particularly since we seem to be emphasising that it’s going to be a difficult process or that we expect different techniques to be used for different errors and we’re interested in knowing which ones for which errors.  We are expecting a detailed account of the process of correcting and so we use correcting in oreder to signal this.  The next example of a verb+ing is example 16, so let’s jump there:
16 ‘ When do you propose calling on Eddie Brady?’Again, an interesting example, since we’ve previously said when we ask ‘When?’, we aren’t interested in the process of what happens but the timeframe and so we expect the infinitive. But here the speaker chooses to use the verb+ing – why?  They must be interested in the process of calling on Eddie Brady.  Perhaps it’s more difficult to call on Eddie than it is the other people that have to be called on (and so the difficulty of this process is emphasised) or the speaker is suggesting the listener simply doesn’t have the time to call on Eddie and so is emphasising just what process is involved, reminding the listener of how long this will take, to challenge the listener to explain how they will complete this process within the timeframe known to both conversants. 

Saying yes or to say yes, he’s popped the question!

You might find propose + verb+ing sounds strange, but that’s simply because it’s less common.  We don’t tend to choose to emphasise the process of something when we talk about proposing it.  The details of the process come later.  But there are times, such as in examples 6 & 16 above, when we do want to do so and the choice is there for us to do so when we need it. 

Why not give your students that choice by teaching them about the fundamental meanings of the infinitive form and the verb+ing form, rather than give them rules that don’t work in practice, or suggest they learn infinite lists of verb + verb ‘collocations’?

And while you’re at it, have a go at applying other uses of the -ing form or infinitive to my theory and see if you can come up with examples that except my rule – I’d love to hear about them….

P.S. Here is a game I’ve used in class for verb pattern development / revision, which can easily be used to explore the above rule with your students.  The examples I chose for the sentence race bring up some interesting uses which prove the rule, for example:

Neil would love to run a marathon is the intended answer (we’re not interested in the marathon running process, we’re interested in Neil’s yearning to run one) but one might say Neil would love running a marathon, it’s right up his street, if we were thinking of all the things involved in the process of running a marathon and that Neil would enjoy them.  This use might be more common (or colligate) with comparatives – Neil would love running a marathon more than he’d love cycling 100km

Level 2 Elementary Verb Patterns Sentence Race

Enjoy and let me know what you think!




4 responses

23 03 2012
Julio Cesar

Thanks for casting light on this Neil!

24 03 2012

You’re welcome JC. Do you think it’s a useful rule for the classroom? Do you have any other cool activities to share?

26 04 2012
Julio Cesar

Hi Neil,
Shame on me for such a delay.
My teaching practice has been more related to making the input noticeable and then exploring it with the aid from a given context. On the basis of this a text would set the scene for my target language. Then, I`d discuss with my students what was the author’s intention in using the infinitive or gerund through guided discovery approach to teaching. Your piece really cast light on this, as it yields a clearer picture of the main differences between gerunds and infinitive. The former about the action per se. The later about all the process and its inherent features. Definitely something that will assist my (in progress) teaching strategies.

24 06 2014
Week 2: Day 3 | My Blog

[…] research on how other teachers teach this topic I found this nifty article by Neil McMahon entitled “The Total Process–’verb+ing or infinitive?’–once and for all.” I highly recommend you to read it if you’re interested. I found it quite helpful and may even […]

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