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When to use gerunds and ing verbs in English

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

Do you ever get overwhelmed deciding what to study? Do you worry that you're wasting your time? 

Here's a tip that can make just about every English student sound better: get more comfortable with -ing verbs. 

In today's video, we'll play a game where you need to pay close attention to how native speakers use -ing verbs in a conversation and figure out why they used them. 

Here's a taste of what you'll learn. We'll look at four example sentences from a real English conversation and see what we can learn.

Using -ING Verbs to Add Information

I think one of the first places that we can start to talk about is something that we completely took for granted before as a safe, normal, everyday activity, and that was eating out at restaurants.

To fully understand what's happening, let's simplify this sentence: 

A safe activity was eating out at restaurants.

Sometimes, we like to give more information about the subject of our sentence.

We combine a subject (e.g., a car, a book, a person) plus a linking verb (e.g., is, was, are, seem), followed by a compliment.

The complement is the extra piece of information about the subject. 

These can be adjectives like nice, pronouns like mine, or even nouns like a good deal.

An example is something like The United States is a big country.

The United States is the subject, is is the linking verb, and a big country is the complement.

So where does -ing come in to play?

Sometimes compliments can be verbs pretending to be nouns too. These are known as gerunds.

What does it mean if a verb is pretending to be a noun? Think of it like this.

  • If you say "I am reading," this means that you are doing an action. Reading is something you are doing right now. This means reading is an actual verb in this sentence. 
  • If you say, "I like reading," you are not reading right now. Reading is not an action. It's a thing or an idea. This means reading is acting like a noun (i.e. a gerund) in this sentence.

Back on the idea of complements, if you need to use a verb acting as a noun, you have two choices.

One is to use an -ing verb, which is much more common and less formal. The other is to use an infinitive (e.g., to do, to eat). While using an infinitive is possible in this case, it is much less common and sounds more formal.

With that in mind, I'd typically try to just use -ing verbs as compliments, unless you're talking about a goal or objective. Infinitives tend to be more common in these situations.

Here are some examples:

  • My best job was making ice cream.
  • My goal last year was to run a marathon.
  • One of the things I find difficult is understanding a movie in English.

Using ING Verbs as Objects

Take a look at this sentence:

They've got them completely closed for now. So, it's something that I really enjoy here, and I miss seeing sunsets as well.

If we simplify it we have:

I miss seeing sunsets.

In this case, you always have to use an -ing verb with miss.

You can't say "I miss see sunsets" or "I miss to see sunsets".

Why? Because English is crazy. Let me explain:

Some verbs work with objects. An object is a thing that you do the verb to.

If you say "I like tacos" then tacos are the object, because they are the thing that you like.

This makes sense, but here comes the crazy part.

If you want to use another verb as the object, there is no easy way to know if you should use an infinitive or an -ing verb. It entirely depends on whatever the main verb is. Some verbs even let you use both.

How are you supposed to learn which verbs go with which objects?

The same way that we're learning about -ing verbs, by noticing how native speakers use them, and adding these examples to your collection.

Here are a few examples:

  • enjoy reading and baking.
  • I can't stand talking to your mother.
  • It started raining (OR to rain) when I left work.
  • spend my weekends hanging out with friends. 

Using ING Verbs with Prepositions

Here's another sentence to consider:

Ok, so let's move on to talking about traveling. Everybody that has listened to our podcast knows we love to travel.

There were two -ing verbs in this one. The good news is that they're both parts of the same category. The even better news is that it's much easier than the last one.  

Our simplified sentence would be:

Let's move on to talking about traveling.

Both talking and traveling have something in common. Do you know what it is?

They both come right after a preposition. 

This is a nice simple rule you can follow.

Whenever you use a verb after a preposition, it almost always should be in the -ing form.

For example:

  • I study English by watching the news. 
  • You should practice English before going to work.

Using ING Verbs as Subjects

Here's the final practice sentence:

It's a very, very crowded situation, and it's something that's a little bit concerning for traveling right now. Definitely. Going through security and all that area too, it's very close.

There are 2 -ing verbs in this sentence. The first one, traveling, fits into the prepositions category since it comes right after for.

Going through security is a new usage we haven't seen yet.

Simplifying, we see,

Going through security is cramped.

(I changed close to cramped because cramped makes more sense without the rest of the context.)

Now, does the structure of this sentence look familiar to you?

It's the same structure we saw at the beginning of this video. We have a subject, going through security, a linking verb, is, and a complement, cramped.

In the first category, our -ing verb was the complement. Here, it's acting as a subject.

Usually, a subject is a noun or a pronoun.

But sometimes it can be a verb acting as a noun.

Just like with complements, you have 2 options.

Using the ing verb is the most common and natural.

But technically you can use an infinitive as well. This is pretty rare, and unlike complements, there isn't a specific situation where infinitives are more common as subjects.

If you are going to use a verb as your subject, the best thing to do is to use an -ing verb (aka gerund).

A couple more examples:

  • Learning Russian is difficult.
  • Speaking English should be a part of every course.

Summary

The key now is to start to notice how native speakers use ING verbs. Pay close attention to what you listen to and ask yourself if you understand why they used an ING verb or not. If not, it's time to dig into the details once again.

I want to give a special thanks to the Real English Conversations podcast for letting me use their content in this video.

Real English Conversations is a fun English podcast that improves your English conversation skills while listening to entertaining conversations about everyday topics in American English. 

You can find them on iTunes and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or directly on their website at realenglishconversations.com.

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