‘-ing’ or ‘to’? Everything you need to know (part one: after verbs)

-ing or to? Everything you need to know - part 1: after verbs

This is part 1 of a series of posts on “-ing” and “to,” a.k.a. gerund and infinitive. Click here for part 2.

So you know how to talk about the past in English. (He met a giraffe yesterday.) You know the difference between talking about general actions (I take my giraffe for a walk every day) and actions happening right now (I’m feeding the giraffe right now — I’ll call you back). You can talk about plans in the future (I’m going to visit a giraffe house tomorrow) and predictions in the future (There won’t be many giraffes in the pub at 10 o’clock).

So you can use most of the tenses.

But only the “main” verb (usually the first verb) in a sentence changes because of the tense. What if there are two verbs in the sentence?

If a verb isn’t the first verb in a sentence, then it’s probably* an “-ing” verb (I love eating chocolate), a “to verb” (I forgot to send that letter) or verb 3 (I haven’t ridden a camel).

*Nothing is 100% in English!

I want to share a simple trick with you that will help you decide whether to use “-ing” or “to verb.” This trick is universal, but today let’s look at how it works after verbs (V).

What’s the trick that can solve the verb + “-ing” or “to” problem?

"to + V" is "pushing" to the future, abstract (not real), philosophical

"V + -ing" is a process, based one experience

OK? It’s actually that simple:

  • Verb + “to verb” is pushing to the future. This means that it’s abstract (not “real”) and that means it can feel “philosophical.” It’s usually a goal (not a process).
  • Verb + “-ing” is more “real,” based on experience and is usually a process (not a goal).


Words are just like people, so let’s imagine what they look like:

The "to" man pushes to the future, thinks about the result (not the process)

The “to man” is always thinking about goals. He plans and considers the future. He’s a thinker, not so much a doer.
But we like him. Before we do something, it’s good to have a plan, right?

The "-ing" lady feels the experience, focuses on the process (not the result)

The “-ing lady” is all about doing things. She also thinks, like the “to man,” but when she thinks, she’s thinking about the experience, not the result.

OK. Let’s see these guys in action!

“-ing” and “to” after verbs

When you learned about “-ing” and “to” for the first time, it was probably in a situation something like this:

He wants to make a massive cake.

He enjoys making massive cakes.

We use “to verb” after “want” and  “-ing” after “enjoy.” Some verbs take “to” (want to do), some verbs take “-ing” (enjoy doing).

I often get the question, “How do we know which verbs take ‘-ing’ and which verbs take ‘to’?” and for many years, I told my students “you just have to learn it.”

I was wrong (it happens!). There is actually a system. We just need to ask ourselves, “Is this a ‘to man’ verb or an ‘ing lady’ verb?”

The "-ing" lady making a cake and the "to" man thinking about a cake.

This works with most verbs.

Pushing to the future:

He hoped to buy a box for his massive cake.

I’m planning to visit Mongolia next spring.

Do you need to meet him soon?

Feeling the experience:

Imagine travelling the world in a hot air balloon! Awesome!

I miss being a kid. I had so much fun.

Have you ever dreamt of flying?

Tricky bit #1:

As I’m sure you know, some verbs (e.g. like, love, hate and prefer) can be followed by either “-ing” or “to.”

Alper likes to watch people skiing. Alper likes watching people skiing.

What’s the difference?

When we say “Alper likes watching people skiing,” we’re focusing on Alper’s enjoyment when he watches people skiing. It’s about the experience. It’s more human.

When we say “Alper likes to watch people skiing,” we’re focusing on describing Alper’s habits and routines. It’s not a feeling. It’s more scientific.

Have a look at these examples. Why is the first example “-ing” and the second “to”?

I like walking along the beach in summer.

I like to go to the dentist twice a year.

Tricky bit #2:

Some other verbs can take either “-ing” or “to,” but the meaning changes.

Let’s look at these verbs one by one.

Stop + “-ing” or “to”

Look at this picture:

Hi, Alper! Are you watching people skiing again?

Here’s what happened before this picture:
Judy was skiing. Then Judy saw Alper. Judy stopped because she wanted to talk to Alper. (They’re old friends.) So, Judy stopped one thing (the experience). Why? Because she wanted to do another thing (pushing to the future):

Judy stopped skiing. Why? She stopped to talk to Alper.

We stop doing an action to do something else.

Remember + “-ing” or “to”

Let’s look at “to man” and “-ing lady” again. Who do you think is more nostalgic? Who do you think is more organized?

“-ing lady” is more nostalgic because she spends more time thinking about experiences. “To man” is more organised — he thinks about plans!

Here’s a picture of “-ing lady” being nostalgic and “to man” being organised:

I remember being a kid. I'll remember to take my keys.

When we remember doing something, we’re looking back at the past.

When we remember to do something, we’re planning for the future. It means “not to forget.”

Try + “-ing” or “to”

The verb “try” is all about finding a solution to your problem. When you have a problem, you have one ultimate goal: “How can I solve this problem?”

Here’s Amanda with her problem. (We don’t know what the problem is — it’s personal!)

Person with problem looking towards goal in the future.

She’s looking into the future to the point in time when her problem is solved.

To get there what does she need to do?

That’s right! The problem is in the future, so “to man” will help her here — she’s going to try to solve her problem.

But there are lots of things she can do to solve the problem. Some of them will work. Some won’t. But she needs to try, right?

Person with problem and the barriers.

As you can see, these are the actions she needs to do to solve the problem. To solve her problem, Amanda must try asking her mother, or try paying the giraffe.


  • If you try to do something, you focus on the whole problem. It’s the ultimate goal.
  • If you try doing something, you try one method to solve the whole problem.


Tricky bit #3:

So far (until now) we’ve looked at how “to man” and “-ing lady” work when we want to use two verbs in the same sentence.

Here’s Anna:

I want to eat all the cakes.

In this example who’s doing the “wanting” and who’s doing the “eating”? That’s right! It’s Anna! It’s all Anna!

But what if she’s doing the “wanting” and she wants someone else, maybe Elvis Presley (who really liked eating), to do the “eating”?

We need to add Elvis to the sentence, right? How do we do that? Well, let’s start with the sentence from before:

Anna wants to eat all the cakes.

There’s only one person in this sentence (Anna), because Anna is doing the wanting and Anna is doing the eating. But when she wants Elvis to do the eating, we put him in front of that verb:

I want Elvis to eat all the cakes!

This works the same with “-ing” or with “to.” Just put the new person (Elvis) in front:

I want to relax! And I want Elvis to relax.

A strange thing

Finally, here’s a strange thing.

When we use the verb “need” followed by the passive:

It needs to be cooked.

…we can replace the passive infinitive part “to be cooked” with a gerund:

It needs cooking.

Here are some more examples:

This house is filthy and needs cleaning.

Yeah, you can use my bike, but the tyre needs pumping.

This is a little strange because we’re using an active verb for a passive action. But that’s English! As I’m sure you know by now, English is not 100% regular.

So, as you can see, although there are different ways to use “-ing” and “to,” they usually follow the general rule:

  • “to” is pushing to the future!
  • “-ing” is about the experience!

Verb + -ing or to

We’re going to meet these lovely people again in part 2.

If you have any questions about the “to man” and the “-ing lady,” please leave a comment and I’ll try to help you out!

44 thoughts on “‘-ing’ or ‘to’? Everything you need to know (part one: after verbs)

      1. Which one is the correct one?
        We have a gardner to look after our garden.
        We have a gardner looking after our garden.

        1. Excellent question Sheema.

          Well, they’re both correct, but carry slightly different meanings.

          “We have a gardener to look after our garden” feels more like the answer to the question “Why do you have a gardener?”
          “We have a gardener looking after our garden” feels more like the answer to the question “What does your gardener do?”

          The fact that your gardener looks after your garden doesn’t change. It’s more about how the sentence feels.

          Does that make sense?

  1. Hey there! I’m enjoying the contents this blog! Awesome!!! This topic about gerund and infinitive is fantastic! Thanks.

  2. Excellent! Thank you very much! I have been struggling to grasp these concepts, so I really have enjoyed reviewing your post…:)

  3. Gabriel, you are 100% original. Undoubtedly, you know how to present the issues in a friendly way! I like your style!

  4. Lady Ingrid and Gent-2 like football; they both fans but in a slightly different way. She’s a passionate woman and longing for tension and drama of the event. Whereas he just a bloke who bets on the sport.

  5. Thanks for yet another excellent post!

    I’m still digesting. A question arose when I read:
    “When we say “Alper likes to watch people skiing,” we’re focusing on describing Alper’s habits and routines. It’s not a feeling. It’s more scientific. ”

    Can i look at it as if a reporter or an outsider describes someone else’s habit or routine? From an outsider point of view.

    I’m getting confused by the second example with boxing in the video. What do you think?

    1. Wow! I really loved that video.

      And yes — there is another layer of meaning that they point out that I didn’t include in my post — if you need to differentiate between watching a sport or doing it, we would use -ing for the watching and “to verb” for the doing.

      So although we can use “to verb” as a sort of technical, less experiential expression, when we find ourselves in situations like the guy who likes boxing and doesn’t like to box, then their roles appear to flip.

      But don’t be confused! Like the Papa Teach Me guy in the video says, the difference is soooo small and usually it’s best to just stick to -ing. It’s what we do! 🙂

  6. Congrats. It’s quite original the approach with dichotomy man-woman, feellings-planning, expirience-scientific… I loved it

    1. Hi Tan,

      Good question.

      You’ll actually find the “-ing” form everywhere in English.

      Sometimes it behaves like an adjective, so we’d use it with “be”: “Titanic is the most boring film I’ve ever seen.”

      Sometimes it behaves like a verb (in the continuous tense). In this case we’d also use it with “be”: “She’s sleeping at work again.”

      And sometimes it behaves like a noun. In which case, we don’t necessarily need to use it with “be”: “Having to wake up this early should be illegal.”

      Great question and thanks for commenting! 🙂

  7. Fantastic explanation . That´s what I like, i.e. , not swallowing prescritive rule down the thoat , but being able to know the reason behind things .
    Thanks a bunch for this .

  8. Outstanding! That’s something that can really help with this topic to be explained to my students. Grab and use it immediately. ))
    Great respect!

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