Demystifying Verbals: Gaining Clarity on Infinitives, Participles, and Gerunds

Jan 24, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

One of the elements in the stylistic techniques list is the strong verb. A strong verb is a verb that works in place of a more mundane alternative. The strong verb provides a better mental image of the activity that’s taking place on the page, for example: A mom can go after her wayward toddler at the park, or she can sprint after him. The verb sprint provides a better visual to the reader than go does. To learn more about this technique, you can read blog posts, “Stylistic Techniques: the Strong Verb” and “Stylistic Techniques: More about the Strong Verb.”

Rather than spend more time discussing verbs, however, this blog post will focus on words that at first appear to be verbs but aren’t. These stealthy words are called verbals. While they initially look like verbs, they function differently in the sentence, most typically either as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Therefore, a verbal shouldn’t be marked as a strong verb. There are three types of verbals: infinitives, participles, and gerunds. Let’s take a look at these one by one to see how they differ from verbs.

Infinitives are formed by placing the word to in front of a verb. “To sing,” “to dance,” and “to eat” are all infinitives. They are never verbs. Rather, they can act within the sentence as a noun, adjective, or adverb. It is easy to confuse infinitives with another similar looking construction: the prepositional phrase. To tell them apart, just remember that infinitives incorporate verbs, but prepositions end with a noun, the object of the preposition. The pattern for a preposition is this: preposition + noun, no verb. Check out the examples that follow:

Infinitive: Mrs. Mauser loves to share poetry with her students.

Prepositional phrase: Mrs. Mauser went to the bookstore on Friday.

The next type of verbal is the participle. To form a participle, attach either an -ing or an -ed to a verb*. While infinitives do not act as the verbs in the sentence, when participles follow helping verbs, they do function as verbs. Here is an example:

Participle functioning as a verb: Mrs. Mauser was driving to the bookstore last Friday.

Frequently, however, participles are actually functioning as adjectives. This is what happens when the participle appears without an accompanying helping verb. Here are are a couple of examples of those:

Mrs. Mauser has unique knitting tools.

It was a knitted stocking cap.

The last verbal to check out is the gerund. Gerunds act like nouns and are formed by adding -ing to the simple present form of a verb. Consider the following examples of gerunds:

Knitting (noun) is one of my favorite hobbies.

Knitting (noun) is so much more enjoyable than running (noun), but running (noun) burns more calories.

While all of this grammar knowledge is good, it really only benefits us if we can transfer it to our writing. In other words, knowing the words and definitions of verbal, infinitive, participle, and gerund is essentially just trivia unless that knowledge transfers to the paper. How do we accomplish this with our students?

Let your students’ sentences guide you. As you read through your students’ papers and notice verbals being mistakenly identified as verbs, note down the sentences. During the next class, use those sentences as a grammar lesson, changing any identifying content so that no one feels called out. Then work together as a group to fix the sentence. Praise what you like about the sentence first; then move into explaining to your students that what is underlined is actually a participle, infinitive, or gerund.

Finally, rewrite it together. For example, if the sentence you are working on as a class is something like this, Amelia Earhart wanted to reach Howland Island safely, with “to reach” being marked as the strong verb, use that sentence to first identify the verb, wanted, and then come up with a list of potential stronger alternatives:

Amelia Earhart strove to reach Howland Island safely.

Amelia Earhart desired to reach Howland Island safely.

Amelia Earhart struggled to reach Howland Island safely.

Amelia Earhart fought to reach Howland Island safely.

Amelia Earhart attempted to reach Howland Island safely.

Andrew Pudewa models this approach in his classes. If you have Structure and Style for Students, you can see him demonstrate grammar at the point of need in the classes. Model the process repeatedly with your students so that they eventually are able to avoid accidentally marking verbals as verbs.

Perhaps the best consistent practice I can recommend to you is to get your students started with the appropriate level of Fix It! Grammar. The program allows students to act as the editor as they work to fix embedded errors in sentences that cumulatively tell a story. Students enjoy the exercises, and teachers appreciate the open and go approach that is effective and easy to teach. Additionally the super handy Grammar Glossary included in the Teacher’s Manual makes it a snap to look up answers to those pesky grammar questions. If you are interested in the program, try a few sample lessons by visiting this link.


* Some verbs have irregular forms, so keep in mind that the past participle might not always be formed with an -ed.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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