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I keep seeing questions like this every day:

What's the difference between jump and jumping? Why would I say I like to jump up and down instead of I like jumping up and down?

Every time I see these questions, I really want to mark them as a duplicate of another question that also has a good answer.

Sometimes, there is a specific difference that might not be addressed by a general answer, but I seem to be unable to find any reference to any overall discussion of the difference between the infinitive and the present participle. It also seems to be a large source of confusion among the people coming to this site.

In the end, all of these individual questions get answered individually. I think there's a good opportunity to address them all the same way—at least in general.

Am I blind and missing an obvious question in my searches, or is there simply not a suitable duplicate target? I've seen some questions (with answers) in search results, but none that would be reference quality in terms of a good resolution.

If necessary, I might even be forced to come up with my own question and answer to use, just because I'm finding the repetition of the general question so frustrating.

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    There is always the option of creating a canonical-post for it. Frankly, I think we could use more than the two we have and it could be something that if one person worked out the framework of, other folks could pitch in. It wouldn't be a good duplicate target for anything except the most general questions, but it would be a good to link as a helpful "related" question. – ColleenV May 7 at 19:32
  • @ColleenV Perhaps my frustration is twofold. There are many questions that could be addressed by a canonical post, but it's not clear from those specific questions that differ just slightly enough. So, you end up wanting to copy and paste a general response—and then add only a few lines to address the particulars. But I don't know how to do something like that appropriately. Even with a canonical post, it doesn't seem it would be a good idea to post an answer that was 80% quoting that answer, and then only providing 20% of something original—for each repeated question. – Jason Bassford May 7 at 19:36
  • By the way, I take it your comment implies there is no such type of canonical reference on this subject currently, and I'm not actually blind in my searches? ;) – Jason Bassford May 7 at 19:39
  • I don't have a good target for those, although we do have a infinitive-vs-gerund Maybe the first step is to try to group those questions with a tag (or set of tags) so we can see exactly what we have covered. – ColleenV May 7 at 19:46
  • I tend to "favorite" my favorite duplicate targets, like the "in the park/at the park" one, so I'll dig through and see if I marked anything for those. I don't think I have – ColleenV May 7 at 19:47
  • Thanks. I favourite frequent duplicate targets too. I just don't have one for this yet. – Jason Bassford May 7 at 20:46
  • (Apparently they are bookmarks now... Favorites are now known as Bookmarks) – ColleenV May 7 at 21:03
  • @ColleenV That's almost freaky. Because just two hours ago they still had the old name. – Jason Bassford May 7 at 21:12
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What's the difference between "I love singing" and "I love to sing"?

Might be a good place to start. Araucaria's answer is pretty comprehensive and the question is a pretty general one about "to sing" versus "singing". Both have pretty good scores as well.

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  • Great find! And I'm actually glad that the answer boiled down to me mostly being blind. This is a good starting point. – Jason Bassford May 7 at 21:04
  • @JasonBassford I found it by looking at the infinitive-vs-gerund tag sorted by votes and just going down the list until I found a good candidate. There may be a better, less up-voted option or one that wasn't tagged. – ColleenV May 7 at 21:25
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Answer

A single duplicate target cannot possibly exist for this type of question because whether an infinitival or gerund-participial is used depends on

  1. the type of verb, or the individual verb licensing the above forms, and
  2. sometimes, the complement itself.

Explanation

First of all, this is not about the specific forms of the verb functioning as complement – in this case jump (and the forms (to) jump and jumping) because most verbs, with some exceptions, commonly occur in both of these forms when functioning as complement.

The crux of the matter is which verb or verbal idiom is followed by the above-mentioned forms. More precisely, the difference in meaning depends on the verb which licenses a (bare or to-) infinitival and/or gerund-participial complement, rather than the verb used as the complement itself (with some exceptions).

A very common example is the idiom go on. Here's the relevant entry from Practical English Usage by M. Swan:

go on

Go on + -ing form means 'continue'.

She went on talking about her illness until we all went to sleep.

Go on + infinitive refers to a change of activity.

She stopped talking about that and went on to describe her other problems.

Note how the author doesn't place any restrictions on the verbs that can be used as complements. A more important thing to observe here is that there's a separate entry for the idiom go on. There are also separate entries for verbs regret, remember, advise, see, stop, try, and a couple others, as well as adjectives, where the difference in meaning between infinitival and gerund-participial complements is explained.

Let's look at another entry, simply to make clear the fact that we cannot provide the same explanation when it comes to the difference in the type of complement:

see, watch and hear

After these verbs, the difference between object + -ing form and object + infinitive is like the difference between progressive and simple tenses. With -ing forms the verbs suggest that one pays attention to events or actions that are already going on; infinitives usually refer to complete events/actions which are seen/heard from beginning to end. [...]

There probably exists a relationship between these two entries. After all, we are dealing with the same type of constructions, and they're bound to be related semantically, but it's dubious whether you can actually generalize this difference in meaning to all verbs and adjectives and idioms to which the difference applies and is appreciable.


As I mentioned, there are also some exceptions with respect to the verbs used as complements. The entry for the verbs begin and start contains the following:

begin and start

...

Infinitives are also preferred with understand, realise and know.

I slowly began to understand how she felt. (NOT ...began understanding...)

He started to realise that if you wanted to eat you had to work. (NOT ...started realising...)


The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), commonly referred to as CGEL, written by Huddleston et al., on pp.1240–1 says:

Which form-type(s) a particular catenative selects must be specified lexically for that verb: we cannot assign distinct meanings to the form-types and treat the selection as semantically determined. On the other hand, the selection is not random: verbs with similar meanings tend to select the same form-types, and where a verb allows both major form-types we very often find a difference in meaning that is at least partly motivated by their general characteristics.

We have noted (§1.4) that infinitival to derives historically from the preposition to and that while it has quite clearly undergone a syntactic change such that in this use it is no longer a preposition, certain aspects of its infinitival subordinator use reflect its origin. Prepositional to is characteristically associated with a goal, and a metaphorical association between to-infinitivals and goals is to be found in the fact that they commonly involve temporal projection into the future, as with the complements of ask, choose, consent, hesitate, order, persuade, promise, resolve, strive, tell, threaten, and countless other catenatives. Linked with this is the modal feature of potentiality. The gerund-participial, by contrast, is commonly associated with what is current and actual, as in They enjoy walking, She finished working, He practised speaking with an American accent, and it is plausible to see this as connected with the nominal source of most gerund-participial complements. But it must be emphasised that we are talking here of historically motivated tendencies and associations, not constant elements of meaning.

CGEL then goes on to list 6+ categories (one of which is titled Some individual cases) of verbs over the next 4+ pages with respect to the potential difference in meaning between the usages of to-infinitivals and gerund-participials.

  • Feel free to leave a comment as to what you think is inaccurate about this, or introduce improvements of your own. It's presently not clear which part of this post a downvote might be addressing. – user3395 May 10 at 12:43

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