The word like has a lexical meaning. But, I like to write has a grammatical meaning.
When you think of meaning, you usually rush off to a dictionary to look up a word. But do you think about grammatical meaning in your writing? If so, or not, how to do look up a grammatical meaning.
A dictionary won’t normally help you in finding the meaning of a complete sentence or clause. The only way to discover meaning is to use a good English grammar reference book.
For English speakers, basic grammar rules of the English language are ingrained and a reflex action. But how often do you question your reflexes in writing?
A lot of people tend to write as they speak, but we don’t always speak in grammatically correct phrases. We all make little, or big, habitual mistakes when we speak.
However, in writing, little things like splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with a preposition or using subject-verb order in a question are grammatical errors that stand out very badly.
We also tend to speak in short, incomplete sentences or clauses, unlike in writing, where long, complete sentences are used far more frequently.
Checking for meanings of parts of speech, which is in fact, what grammar is, takes time and patience.
Learning your grammar all over again for your writing
There are basic rules such as those that apply to singular and plural verb agreement, uncountable and countable nouns, use of object, possessive or personal pronouns. These rarely cause problems for writers in use or meaning.
However, back to the title of this article, and what can cause real confusion for new writers.
Correct use of the gerund or the infinitive with preference verbs is one of the grammatical forms that can cause real problems for inexperienced writers. While they may think the meaning is clear in a sentence they write, this is not always true.
I see so many author bios with either one of these two short phrases, so it makes for a very good example. But what do they mean?
Let’s look at the possible meanings of the two sentence examples below.
I like to write.
I like writing.
Is there a difference in meaning between these two very simple sentences? Most definitely, yes.
Almost all preference verbs or preference adjectives and clauses take the gerund.
This is because the gerund is a verbal noun, which can always replace a noun. Therefore it expresses a preference for something. Think gerund, think chocolate, because they are interchangeable.
Verbs such as adore, detest, dislike, enjoy, don’t mind and loathe, or words like keen on, can’t stand, crazy about or fond of, always use the gerund in a similar manner to a noun.
I enjoy writing.
I enjoy wine.
I adore reading.
I adore chocolate.
I can’t stand working on the weekend.
I can’t stand trains that are late.
I don’t mind waiting for you.
I don’t mind winter.
Using the gerund or a noun after a preference verb will always have the grammatical meaning of something, or an activity, that you enjoy or love, or hate, or prefer not having or doing.
The use of the infinitive changes the meaning subtly
Why do you write?
To sell books and make money.
When the infinitive is used after certain preference verbs, the meaning changes to the sense of the answer above. Instead of a preference, we now have a reason.
For three preference verbs, like, love and hate, the infinitive can follow them to express a reason why we do something. It cannot replace a noun, as is the case with the gerund.
Therefore, for the two sentences, I like writing and I like to write, the meanings are different.
I like writing. Meaning: I do it with a passion. I love it. I can’t go a day without writing.
I like to write. Meaning: Because it relieves my tension. Because I can close the door and tell my kids to keep quiet. Because it is the only way I can escape from reality.
With an extension to the phrases, the different meanings are even clearer.
I like writing early in the morning. Meaning: It’s quiet and peaceful and I enjoy listening to the birds singing.
I like to write in the morning. Meaning: Because I have to start work at nine, so it’s my only chance to write.
With the verbs love and hate, there is a similar difference in meaning.
What do you prefer?
Lastly, there is one preference verb that takes both the gerund or the infinitive, but without a change of meaning.
As the verb prefer distinctly has the meaning of expressing a preference, its meaning is not changed.
I prefer writing late at night.
I prefer to write late at night.
These two sentences have the exact same grammatical meaning of expressing a preference. The verb prefer cannot express reason.
However, never confuse the preference verbs noted above when they are used with the addition of the modal verb, would. Would changes the grammatical meaning to express a wish, a hope, a fear or a desire.
As soon as you add would, the infinitive is always used.
I would love to write a book.
I would hate to get arrested.
I would like to get published.
How to make an almost always correct grammatical decision
With all verbs of preference, it is almost always better to follow with the gerund, as this will mean that it is something that is a pleasure or enjoyable, or not enjoyable. Think chocolate if ever in doubt.
The only times when you should consider using the infinitive is when you want to expressly state a reason for your preference, and then only with like, love or hate.
Therefore the answer to the title of this article is definitely, I like writing!
Investigate, and always be curious about grammar
In other parts of speech and grammatical forms, there are decisions to make regarding the precise meaning of a clause or sentence.
There is often some confusion as to when to use the simple past or present perfect. Or which future form to use.
As a little brainteaser, can you spot the grammar difference and subtle changes of meaning in these few sentences below? What grammar structure is at work here?
I recommended that he take a grammar course.
I suggested that he takes a grammar course.
It is absolutely necessary that he take a grammar course.
I think he takes a grammar course.
I insisted he take a grammar course.
I don’t know if he takes a grammar course.
Three of the sentences above use the subjunctive mood. It is often used to expresses a doubt, wish, regret, request, demand, or a proposal.
The only way to understand how grammar works is to grab a good grammar reference book and start reading and learning. One of my favourites is Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage because it is written in easy to read plain English. Then apply your new knowledge to your writing.
If you prefer to learn online, there are grammar checkers such as Grammarly, which I use and can highly recommend that can also help you in correcting common grammar errors by giving an explanation for the errors it finds.
In conclusion, never trust that how you speak can be transferred totally into how you write. Double checking, or investigating your grammar use is never a waste of time.
If you think it is fun to write, then you should also make refreshing your grammar knowledge fun too.
If you do, you will be on your way to becoming a much better writer.
Related reading: Bad Words And Weak Words That Every Writer Should Avoid