The Difference Between Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives

Verbals in English Grammar: Definitions, Examples, and Exercises

Hummingbird in flight
Here's a grammatical riddle: When is a verb not a verb?. (DansPhotoArt on Flickr/Getty Images)

A verbal is a word derived from a verb that functions in a sentence as a noun or modifier rather than as a verb. In other words, a verbal is a verb that acts like a different part of speech.

Verbals include infinitivesgerunds (also known as -ing forms), and participles (also known as -ing forms and -en forms). A word group based on a verbal is called a verbal phrase. Each of these verbals is often part of a phrase, which includes related modifiers, objects, and complements.

What Are Participles?

A participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective to modify nouns and pronouns, as in this example:

The children, crying and exhausted, were guided out of the collapsed house.

Crying is a present participle, formed by adding -ing to the present form of the verb (cry). Exhausted is a past participle, formed by adding -ed to the present form of the verb (exhaust). Both participles modify the subject, children. All present participles end in -ing. The past participles of all regular verbs end in -ed. Irregular verbs, however, have various past participle endingsfor instance, thrown, ridden, built, and gone.

A participial phrase is made up of a participle and its modifiers. A participle may be followed by an object, an adverb, a prepositional phrase, an adverb clause, or any combination of these. For example, in the following sentence the participial phrase consists of a present participle (holding), an object (the torch), and an adverb (steadily):

Holding the torch steadily, Jenny approached the monster.

In the next sentence, the participial phrase consists of a present participle (making), an object (a great ring), and a prepositional phrase (of white light):

Jenny waved the torch over her head, making a great ring of white light.

What Are Gerunds?

A gerund is a verb form ending in -ing that functions in a sentence as a noun. Although both the present participle and the gerund are formed by adding -ing to a verb, the participle does the job of an adjective while the gerund does the job of a noun. Compare the verbals in these two sentences:

  • The children, crying and exhausted, were guided out of the collapsed house.
  • Crying will not get you anywhere.

Whereas the participle crying modifies the subject in the first sentence, the gerund crying is the subject of the second sentence.

What Are Infinitives?

An infinitive is a verb form—often preceded by the particle to—that can function as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. Compare the verbals in these two sentences:

  • I don't like crying in public unless I'm getting paid for it.
  • I don't like to cry in public unless I'm getting paid for it.

In the first sentence, the gerund crying serves as the direct object. In the second sentence, the infinitive to cry performs the same function.

Exercise: Identifying Verbals

For each of the following sentences, decide if the word or phrase in italics is a participle, a gerund, or an infinitive.

  1. The children's singing and laughing woke me up.
  2. Jenny likes to dance in the rain.
  3. There are many ways of breaking a heart.
  4. A broken heart will mend over time.
  5. "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." (George Burns)
  6. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner.
  7. "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." (Woody Allen)
  8. "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." (Woody Allen)
  9. "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." (Gore Vidal)
  10. Succeeding is not enough. Others must fail.

Answer Key

  1. Gerund: In this sentence, the words singing and laughing function as nouns, making them gerunds.
  2. Infinitive: You can tell that to dance is an infinitive because "to" precedes the word "dance." 
  3. Gerund: The verbal breaking serves as a noun. It is also the object of the preposition of.
  4. (Past) participle: Implied in this sentence is the verbal phrase, that has been preceding the verbal, broken, making it a past participle, which indicates something that happened and was completed in the past.
  5. (Present) participles: Loving and caring are actions that are occurring in the present, making these verbals present participles.
  6. Gerund: Laughing is a noun making it a gerund.
  7. Infinitives: The verbal to achieve, in both cases, is an infinitive because it's a verb preceded by to.
  8. Gerund: Dying is used as a noun in the sentence.
  9. Infinitive: To succeed is an infinitive—a verb preceded by to.
  10. Gerund: Succeeding is a noun here; indeed, it is the subject of the first sentence, making it a gerund.