Why do we use:

  1. to start laughing

instead of,

  1. to start to laugh

And what is the construction verb + (verb + ing) called?

  • 12
    "to start to laugh" is also correct
    – fluffy
    Oct 8, 2014 at 7:17
  • 2
    @fluffy Yep, but it doesn't sound quite natural to me. Oct 8, 2014 at 7:21
  • 11
    I started to laugh when I saw her hat. - - sounds natural to me. :)
    – user6951
    Oct 8, 2014 at 7:24
  • 2
    I would say "started to laugh" or "started laughing" is a lexical representation of inceptive aspect :-) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_aspect
    – TimR
    Oct 8, 2014 at 14:09
  • 1
    It's interesting to compare start + watch and start + understand, for example. Clearly the second verb is important. Apr 20, 2015 at 20:31

4 Answers 4


To answer Why is it "to start laughing" and not "to start to laugh"?, I will point out that both alternatives are equally possible (but there are some minor points we should be aware of) by quoting a sub-entry from Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. (Its main entry is about some verbs and adjectives that can be followed by either -ing forms or infinitives.)

299.10 begin and start
Begin and start can be followed by infinitives or -ing forms. Usually there is no important difference.
​   She began playing / to play the guitar when she was six.
​   He started talking / to talk about golf, but everybody went out of the room.
After progressive forms of begin and start, infinitives are preferred.
​   I'm beginning to learn karate. (NOT I'm beginning learning karate.)
Infinitives are also preferred with understand, realise and know.
​   I slowly began to understand how she felt. (NOT ... began understanding ...)
​   He started to realise that if you wanted to eat you had to work. (NOT ... started realising ...)

To answer What is the construction 'verb + (verb + ing)' called?, I will base my answer on chapter 13 section 4 (pages 214-6) of A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and answer that this construction is a catenative construction where the matrix verb (i.e. the main verb) is a catenative verb, and the complement is a catenative complement.

In our case, the catenative verb is start and the catenative complement of to start to laugh is a to-infinitival clause, and the catenative complement of to start laughing is a gerund-participial clause. (Please refer to section 3 in chapter 13 for more details on "the functions of non-finite clauses".)

According to the book, the term 'catenative' is derived from the Latin word for "chain". To keep this answer short, I provide a link to page 215 on Google Books, along with a screenshot below. The page has a very good example of such a 'catenative' chain.

page 215 of A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum page 215 of *A Student's Introduction to English Grammar* by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum

  • 4
    +1. :) Your next assignment, if you so choose to accept it, is to explain the the difference in usage between "begin" and "start" in these types of catenative constructions. :D -- Oh, be aware that "After progressive forms of begin and start, infinitives are preferred" is slightly, er, misleading. Aspectual verbs (e.g. "begin", "start") cannot themselves be in the -ing form when they have an -ing complement. CGEL page 1243-4, [57]. This is known as the "doubl-ing constraint".
    – F.E.
    Apr 28, 2015 at 1:00
  • 2
    Thanks (for both the vote and the assignment :-)! As far as I can tell, the difference between the two verbs, when exists, is more about one verb can't be used in the same meaning as the other (Swan lists three cases where begin is not possible: We ought to start at six. The car won't start. The President's wife fired the gun to start the race.) I can't really tell the difference in usage between "begin" and "start" in these types of catenative constructions. In the spirit of a language enthusiast, I searched and found this: is.muni.cz/th/383884/ff_b/Bachelor_Diploma_Thesis.txt. Apr 28, 2015 at 2:37
  • 1
    From the thesis: "Catenative verbs begin and start followed by to-infinitive and –ing form of verbs listen, hear and sound are examined from the semantic point of view. [...] The analysis shows that start makes a specific claim for 'result', which means that it is suitable for contexts where an action, state or event must be perceived 'resultatively' – the result in the form of a goal. It refers to an initiation point of a process. [...] Generally, begin followed by to-infinitive form of selected verbs is more common than –ing form, while start is more common with –ing form." Apr 28, 2015 at 2:39
  • 2
    Er, ya gotta be careful about the stuff found in undergraduate, and graduate, theses and papers, especially when they are written by EFL speakers. As to "start" vs "begin", er, that stuff is currently undergoing a so-called language change as to their usage in today's English, as is the common competition between infinitive and -ing as complements. :)
    – F.E.
    Apr 28, 2015 at 4:49

To start is one of those verbs that can be followed by both gerund ([verb]-ing) and infinitive (to + [verb]). There is no difference in meaning whatsoever. This is also true for to begin and to continue.

That said, bear in mind that in continuous tenses the infinitive is used, i.e. "is starting to do something".

  • 4
    I suspect the only reason "in continuous tenses the infinitive is used" is because it sounds "awkward" to have two consecutive -ing verb forms. Effectively a matter of stylistic choice, rather than the application of a grammatical rule. Apr 20, 2015 at 20:28
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers Quite so. The technical term for that "awkwardness" is horror aequi. Apr 20, 2015 at 21:27
  • @StoneyB: I knew you'd used that term some while ago (more accurately, I knew you'd used a term, but on account of not remembering exactly what it was I couldn't search for it! :) Now I've got my clipboard on the case, I'm intrigued by this definition which also mentions an (unnamed) tendency (motivated by the quantity principle) for the variants scarved and leaved to be more strongly attracted to plural contexts than their rivals scarfed and leafed... Apr 21, 2015 at 11:51
  • 1
    ...which aren't words I'd be likely to use very often. But on reflection I think if I did, I probably would quite naturally "pluralise" those (adjectival) past tense verb forms as appropriate, without being consciously aware of it. Weird. Apr 21, 2015 at 11:54
  • 4
    @StoneyB: That's one of the reasons I find ELL/ELU so interesting. It's nice to have a name for some aspect of usage that you are actually aware of (you just didn't know what to call it). But it's positively captivating (esp. at our age, as people interested in such matters) to discover we're falling into line with a principle we wen't even aware of for so long. In context, I'm more than happy to account myself a "learner". Apr 21, 2015 at 12:37

Here in started laughing : 'laughing' is a gerund.

To make it more clear a gerund is nothing but 'Verb+ing' form which is a noun.

Answer to your second question.

Verb+(Verb+ing) is nothing but verb+gerund --> it is nothing but verb+noun.

Here are the example that clears your confusion.

He likes playing cricket.

He hates smoking.

He masters gokarting.


Sometimes two expressions are used side by side. 1 to start with laughing ("with" was dropped later on) and 2 to start to laugh.

  • I think "Then the baby started with the crying" is a logical expression. Of course, today this is used in a shorter form, "with" and "the" are omitted. A number of verb constructions of the type verb + gerund can be explained by omission of a preposition before the gerund.
    – rogermue
    Dec 22, 2014 at 4:23

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