Gerunds & Infinitives
A lot of times students ask me how to understand groups words like the underlined in – they were impressed by him seemingly effortlessly playing the complex piece of music – why they’re formed in the way that they are (him, playing).
Noun forms of verbs
Infinitives are the to + simple verb form of verbs – to be, to have, to do, to say, ect. – and gerunds are the -ing forms of verbs – being, having, doing, saying, ect.
These are not actually verbs because they don’t talk about nouns doing things at certain times, which is what verbs do. Instead they talk about the idea of a verb – the idea of some action or way things are (state). As these ideas, they are nouns and used as nouns in sentences, as in:
He forgot to bow.
She quit smoking.
In each of these, the noun form of the verb is the object of the sentence’s verb – in the first, as an infinitive, and in the second as a gerund.
Nouns forms of verbs can also be subjects, but in this case will usually need to be in gerund form to sound good.
Surfing relieves stress.
To surf relieves stress.
The second sentence isn’t totally wrong, but it’s awkward and it will be the same for the infinitives of most verbs. Some it will be OK for (with “to be”, for example, as in “To fish is fun”, it’s “OK”), but even in these cases, they won’t sound better than gerunds, so it’s better just to always use gerunds instead of infinitives as subjects.
This will be true both for simple nouns and complex nouns. What are complex nouns?
Interestingly, like normal verbs, nouns forms of verbs can have their own subjects, objects, and adverb phrases. When they have any of these, they become complex nouns.
Complex nouns are kind one thing, one unit and can be formed of any combination of noun form of verb + subject, object, and/or adverb phrase of this verb.
Noun forms of verbs with their own subjects
She saw him running.
The object may seem to be just “him” here, but actually it’s the whole thing she saw: “him running”. This is a gerund with it’s own subject. (Him does the running.) Together they make up a complex noun.
Him staring filled her with conflicting emotions.
Here, the same complex noun, with the same qualities (gerund with it’s own subject), functions as the subject of the sentence.
Notice that in both cases the subject of the gerund takes the object pronoun form (him instead of he). All pronouns of noun forms of verbs, whether they be subjects or objects of them, are put in object pronoun form (him, her, us, them).
Noun forms of verbs with their own objects
He likes to read classical novels.
“To read classical novels” is the object of the sentence as a complex noun. It’s “center of gravity” is the noun form of the verb in the infinitive form “to read”, which has it’s own object, “classical novels”.
To read classic novels raises your IQ.
Again, we can use our complex noun as a subject rather than an object. But remember, we shouldn’t in this case. “To read” is an infinitive and, as discussed above, infinitives usually sound strange as subjects. It does here too. It would be better to say:
Reading classical novels raises your IQ.
As with subjects of noun forms of verbs, when the object of a noun of a verb is given as a pronoun, it should be in object pronoun form.
Reading them raises your IQ.
Noun forms of verbs with their own adverbs and adverb phrases
Adverbs describe verbs similar to how adjectives describe nouns. They say how, when, where, why, etc. a verb happened, and can be used on noun forms of verbs.
I want to speak better.
The important thing to see here is that “better” belongs to “to speak” and not to “want”. It modifies and belongs to the noun of the verb and a part of the complex noun “to speak better”.
We need to be careful with this kind of situation though. There are plenty of similar constructions where this won’t be the case.
I need to sleep desperately.
Here “desperately”, also an adverb, belongs to “need” and not the noun of the verb “to sleep”.
Adverb phrases are adverbs made up of multiple words, usually but not always beginning with a preposition.
Adverb: He works efficiently.
Adverb phrase: He works in an efficient way.
They can belong to noun forms of verbs and be included in complex nouns just as adverbs are.
Her teacher recommended studying in an efficient way.
“In an efficient way” belongs to “studying” as part of a complex noun and not to “recommended”.
Complex complex nouns
As mentioned above, noun forms of verbs can have any number of: their own subjects, objects, and adverb phrases.
She remembers him talking to her sweetly.
Here the noun of the verb is “talking”, which has it’s own subject, “him”, object, “her”, and adverb “sweetly”. Together they make up the complex noun – one thing – “him talking to her sweetly”.
Complex complex complex nouns (technical term)
Now the subjects, objects, and adverb phrases of noun forms of verbs can also noun forms of verbs themselves, which makes possible, and even not so rare, even more complex constructions, which together make up single nouns.
A tame example:
I preach improving speaking by increasing understanding.
“Improving speaking by increasing understanding” is a single thing that makes up the object of the sentence. Its center of gravity is the gerund noun of verb “improving”. This has its own object, also a gerund noun of verb “speaking”, and its own adverb phrase “by increasing understanding”, which has another gerund noun of verb “increasing”, which has its own object, also a gerund noun of verb “understanding”.