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Where the infinitive or gerund fits in a sentence

By Alex Chagema | April 27th 2020

Over the past week, I glimpsed several grammar constructions worth sharing on this platform. A lot has been going on following the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, and discourse across various platforms has been varied and intense.

I came across expressions like “I saw a horrible dream yesterday night…”, “Bring a good reason for not wearing a face mask”, “I did a small mistake, and she was all over me”, “The GSU officer rode his horse and went to camp after the crowd became hostile” , “On coronavirus, CS Health says the truth through the daily briefings”, “I need like thirty minutes to be with you” and “You can’t avoid to make mistakes”.

All could pass muster if the reader doesn’t pay much attention or, if prescriptive English grammar is the least of the readers’ concerns. A little scrutiny will, however, reveal the grammatical mistakes therein, and the reason is that most are direct translations from other languages.

Dreams are vivid, they are events that one sees with his or her mind’s ‘eye’ while asleep. Local dialects mostly use the equivalent of the word ‘see’ in narrating dreams.

This explains the direct translation: “I saw a horrible dream yesterday night”. In English, to ‘see’ is to perceive with the eyes, but since dreams are not visually discernible, the correct expression is; “I had a horrible dream yesterday night”. The verb ‘had’ is appropriate in the sense that it makes reference to an experience. Dreams are experiences.

The act

The other sentences should have been written as indicated in brackets; “Bring a good reason for not wearing a face mask” (Give a good reason for not wearing a face mask”).  “I did a small mistake and she was all over me” (I made a small mistake and she was all over me).

“The GSU officer rode his horse and went to camp after the crowd became hostile” (The GSU officer mounted, or got on his horse and rode back to camp after the crowd became hostile). The act of getting onto a horse's back is to mount or get onto, not ride. But while we ride on horse back, bicycles and motor cycles, we ride in buses, trains or other enclosed motorised transport.

“On coronavirus, CS Health says the truth through the daily briefings”-(On coronavirus, CS Health speaks the truth through the daily briefings). There is a fine line between ‘say’ and ‘speak’ as to confuse some of us.

But while ‘say’ can be employed either as a noun (e.g. Those arrested after curfew hours have no say in the decision to quarantine them forcibly) or verb (They did not say a thing after they were caught violating curfew restrictions), ‘speak' is strictly a verb.

The dictionary defines ‘say’ as “utter words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling, intention, or an instruction”. ‘Say’ is applicable in both direct and indirect speeches. To ‘speak’ also means to talk or utter words. However, ‘speak’ is more appropriate to the delivery of speeches, lectures or addresses. From this, we gather that ‘speak’ is used in formal one-way communication such as press briefings or the delivery of speeches on national holidays.

Making mistakes

The sentence; “You can’t avoid to make mistakes” uses the infinitive instead of a gerund (verb form that ends in ‘ing’ and acts as a noun). Ideally, it should have been written as; “You can’t avoid making mistakes”. Instances when gerunds are used include; after prepositions and preposition phrases. For example; “Follow the curfew rules without complaining”. Use gerunds with words that take on prepositions. For example; “Police officers are capable of doing the unthinkable while enforcing laws”.

Certain verbs, like excuse, enjoy, stop, avoid and play, take on gerunds. For example; “Criminals enjoy playing hide and seek with police officers during curfew hours”, “stop playing with fire, you will get burned”.

Additionally, we can use gerunds after some common phrases like “I can't help” (I can’t help feeling so helpless at the moment). “It's no use” (It’s no use crying over the loss), “would you mind” (Would you mind showing me how you do it?”. “Look forward to” (I look forward to seeing you again).

The infinitive can be used after certain verbs; see, talk, dislike prefer, love, hate. Infinitives are words (two words) formed from verbs, but which function like nouns, adjectives or adverbs. For example, to see, to talk, to prefer, to eat, to laugh, to sing etcetera.

Mr Chagema is a copy editor at The Standard. achagema @standardmedia.co.ke

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