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In English class in high school, we learn (or at least I did) about verbals, words that stem from verbs but do not function as verbs. Two kinds are infinitives and gerunds.

Infinitives are usually indicated by the word "to" preceding a verb, and gerunds are formed with the -ing suffix on verbs. Infinitives can function as adjectives and adverbs, but also nouns, depending on the context of the sentence. Gerunds can only function as nouns.

Obviously, in English, there is a difference between a noun infinitive and a gerund, in that they are formed differently and are used in different contexts.

But linguistically, are they really that different? They both stem from a verb and function as a noun, and often can be used interchangably (eg. "I like to swim" vs "I like swimming"). Does English just have two ways of expressing essentially the same thing?

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    Erm, infinitives (plain forms) function as head of infinitival clauses. Just because those clauses can function as subject, modifier, complement etc. doesn't mean they are nouns or adjectives or adverbs. – BillJ Feb 16 at 18:32
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It's hard to say, because outside of language-specific traditions (especially English and Latin), "gerund" is not a clearly-defined part of speech. For example, in Bantu languages, there is a clearly-defined form "infinitive" usually marked with a prefix kʊ-, which behaves like a verb w.r.t. VP syntax and like an NP w.r.t. higher-clause syntax (it triggers noun class agreement, a defining diagnostic of nouns).

For example in Logoori you can say kodeeka inyama "to cook meat" (to-cook meat), but *inyama Marova for "meat of Marova", instead you say inyama ya-Marova – there is an obligatory linker between the head noun and the following possessor (or any nominal modifier with the NP). Although kodeeka is a noun, it doesn't act like a noun, at the level of VP arguments. However, you also say kodeeka kwa-Marova "Marova's cooking" and kodeeka inyama kwa-Marova "Marova's cooking (of) meat". so the combination of a subject and an infinitive is treated as a nominal construction (obligatory linker kwa-). As a subject, infinitives trigger subject agreement (ko-deeka ku-malizi "the cooking is finished"). In short, w.r.t. syntax of how infinitives behave as clauses in sentences, they are nouns, but w.r.t. syntax of how they act in connection to VP-internal arguments, they act like verbs.

There are many other nominalizations in Logoori / Bantu in general, such as "thing for Ving", "one who verbs", "way of Ving" and "the act of Ving". These are often used in ways that traditional English "gerunds" are used, and they always act like nouns (for example irideeka "way of cooking", irideeka ry-iinyama "way of cooking meat" with obligatory linker and *irideeka inyama without the linker – compare with kodeeka inyama / *kodeeka kw-iinyama (except meaning that the meat is doing the cooking). These nominalizations in Bantu are not called "gerunds" but by way of comparison to English, some / all of these could easily be called "gerunds".

Without a language-independent definition of "gerund" and "infinitive", I don't see any way to determine whether "gerunds" are different from infinitives.

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  • And the form traditionally called "gerund" in Russian is more adjective-like than noun-like; it is more like a participle, but it is indeclinable, whereas there are also declined participles. – Colin Fine Feb 16 at 22:57

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