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When I first learned English, I was taught to use only "it ~ to" form as opposed to "it ~ ing" form, so I always thought the latter one is not grammatical. But I heard a lot of native speakers actually using the second form, so I wondered if it's grammatical or it's ungrammatical but allowed in daily conversations.

For example:

It was the first time to meet you.
It was the first time meeting you.

What is it like to have a child?
What is it like having a child?

  • 1
    Briefly some native speaker intuitions: "It was the first time to meet you." is wrong. "It was the first time meeting you." sounds ok. However, to speak about a particular event in the past, like in the first two examples, I would say "It was the first time we met." Both the "to verb" and "verbing" forms are used for less specific, more general actions, like "to have a child" (in general), and "having a child" (in general), your next examples. – neotryte Aug 28 '17 at 10:54
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+50

From M.Swan's PEU:

Infinitives are forms like (to) write, (to) stand. Unlike verb tenses (e.g. writes, stood), infinitives do not usually show the actual times of actions or events. They usually refer to actions and events in a more general way, rather like -ing forms. Besides simple infinitives like (to) write, there are also progressive infinitives (e.g. (to) be writing), perfect infinitives (e.g. (to) have written) and passive infinitives (e.g. (to) be written).

An infinitive clause can be used after be as a subject complement.

Your task is to get across the river without being seen.
My ambition was to retire at thirty

Sentences like these can also be constructed with preparatory it.

It is your task to get across the river without being seen.
It was my ambition to retire at thirty

We can use -ing forms (e.g. smoking, walking) not only as verbs, but also like adjectives or nouns. When -ing forms are used as verbs or adjectives, they are often called 'present participles'. (This is not a very suitable name, because these forms can refer to the past, present or future.) When they are used more like nouns, they are often called 'gerunds'.

We can use it as a preparatory subject or object for an -ing form. This is usually informal.

It's nice being with you.
I thought it pointless starting before eight o'clock.

This is common with any/no good, any/no use and (not) worth.

It's no good talking to him - he never listens.
Is it any use expecting them to be on time?
It's no use his/him apologising - I shall never forgive him.
I didn't think it worth complaining about the meal.

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    Please use the OP examples. – user178049 Aug 27 '17 at 11:13
  • The first pair seems dubious to me, but I'm not a native speaker. The second one is fine. Possible correction: It was wonderful to meet you. It was wonderful meeting you. – Michael Login Aug 27 '17 at 11:37
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The second form is grammatically correct. The word ending with "-ing" is a gerund (while the word corresponding to "to" is an infinitive). Both infinitives and gerunds are nouns, so they are equivalent grammatically.

Which form is used in speech is down to preference, and, as you noted, the second form is more common.

  • No. Infinitives and gerunds are both verbs. – user178049 Aug 27 '17 at 10:05
  • They are verbals that function as nouns. – George Aug 27 '17 at 10:09
  • @user178049 They are verbal or deverbal nouns! – Maulik V Aug 28 '17 at 5:45
  • @MaulikV They are clearly verbs because they take a direct object (cf. "meeting/to meet you"). – user178049 Aug 28 '17 at 5:53
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Let's get it straight, your first pair of sentences is a complete mess!

  • It was the first time to meet you.
  • It was the first time meeting you.

Neither the option with the to-infinitive nor the option with the gerund really work here since the sentences are illogical and ungrammatical.

"the first time to+verb" is plain wrong (bad English) whether in the past or the present, or the future.

However, there seems to exist a construction "the first time to+subject" as in "It was the first time to Jupiter. We didn't know what awaited us there.". Guessing the meaning here is "visit/journey/trip/travel". However, as most sources say we need a possessive adjective with "first time". So your correct two sentences should be:

  • It was my first time to meet you.
  • It was my first time meeting you.

Notice, that the to-infinitive is stiffly formal. And by what I know the first sentence means "something that was about to happen" while the second one means "something that happened". However, in casual speech it's usually:

  • It was the first time we met.
  • It was my first time when I met you.

With the second pair the difference is vague but grammatically interpreted.

  • What is it like to have a child?
  • What is it like having a child?

According to Cambridge Dictionary - "Verb patterns: verb + infinitive or verb + -ing" some verbs can be followed by either a to-infinitive or -ing the "difference in meaning is often small" (quote from the reference):

However, here we can see a question form ("What is... like") which we use when we are enquiring about experience. With this question form either the to-infinitive or the -ing will both mean the same thing. Although we could interpret them as with the verb "like":

  • The -ing form emphasises the verb itself. (Implies enjoyment and liking)
  • The to-infinitive expresses habitual preference, something that we do not necessarily like or enjoy but consider as useful, right or wise.

Based on this information we get:

  • What is it like to have a child? (A general question of possession) - How does having a child change you and your life? This doesn't necessarily imply being pleased with having a child.
  • What is it like having a child? (A question of pleasure and satisfaction) - What does one feel when he has a child? What emotions does one have? This implies being happy and enjoying the fact that you have a child.

To my own knowledge the -ing form usually conveys the idea of wanting to get into somebodies skin. To experience what they experience!

  • What is it like to be a student? - You are asking about general knowledge and the idea.
  • What is it like being a student? - You dire to become one. You want to know what it feels like to be one. You may as well be asking for personal experience.
  • In the latter, 'like' is not a verb, but a preposition. The canonical structure is 'To have a child is like what'. – user178049 Aug 30 '17 at 11:15
  • Yeh, you are right. It's just that naturally "what is it like" functions in the same way the verb "like" does. So we could either interpret it as a question form with no difference in meaning between a to-infinitive and an -ing or with a slight difference in meaning as with the verb "like" followed by a to-infinitive or an -ing. – SovereignSun Aug 30 '17 at 13:56
  • No, the verbal 'like' expresses enjoyment, as you said yourself. The preposition 'like' roughly means 'similar to'. And 'like' does not affect the verb form because 'to have a child/having a child' is the (logical) subject. – user178049 Aug 30 '17 at 14:03
  • @user178049 You are looking at it from the wrong angle. imagine "What is it like to have a child?" to be "Do you like to have a child?" and "What is it like having a child?" to be "Do you like having a child?" – SovereignSun Aug 30 '17 at 14:11
  • In "What is it like" you don't need the preposition! You need to address the whole question form which is used to ask for experience. – SovereignSun Aug 30 '17 at 14:12

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