Nuance: A series to help English language learners explore the subtleties of English

Can TO Be Followed by -ING?

Yes, it can!

This series is called Nuance and it looks at subtleties of the English language that even advanced learners of English might miss.

One of these subtleties is when to use an -ING ending after TO.

The issue

Take a look at the following scenario. Which is correct - sentence A or sentence B?

The correct answer is B.

However, a lot of English learners would choose A, because they learned at school that TO is followed by the base verb:

Wrong: to goes
Wrong: to went
Wrong: to going
Right: to go

However, this rule is not always correct. There ARE some times when TO is followed by a word ending in -ING (a gerund).

When is TO followed by a base verb?

A "base verb" (or "root verb") is a verb in its original form, like GO, but not GOING, GOES, WENT or GONE.

TO is followed by a base verb when we are describing an action.

I like to + [action].
I like to swim.
I need to + [action].
I need to speak to a doctor.

In these sentences, TO SWIM and TO SPEAK are infinitives. However, a word following TO may also be a gerund.

When is TO followed by a gerund?

Now, this is a little it trickier!

When we use the phrase look forward to, we are talking about a THING, not an ACTION:

I am looking forward to + [thing]
I am looking forward to my birthday.
I am looking forward to celebrating my birthday.

Hence, in the last example, “celebrating my birthday” is considered a thing. In terms of grammar, this is called a gerund – a verb ending in -ING which acts as a noun.

We know that “celebrating my birthday” is a noun, because we can use it as the subject of a sentence:

Celebrating my birthday is really important to me.

Another way to look at it is that we are talking about “the act of celebrating my birthday”:

I am looking forward to [the act of] celebrating my birthday.

Note that whenever TO may be followed by a gerund, it may also be followed by a noun:

I am looking forward to my birthday.

What are some common words or phrases where TO is followed by a gerund?

We have already seen “look forward to”:

I am looking forward to meeting Sam.

Here are some other phrases:

Accustomed to
Philip is accustomed to staying in five-star hotels.

Admit to
He admitted to stealing the car.

Adjust to
I still haven’t adjusted to working in a large company.

Get around to (to do something eventually)
Where are you going to get around to fixing those shelves?

Due to
Felix went bankrupt due to gambling away his money at the casino.

Addicted to
Flora became addicted to taking those little red pills.

Opposed to
I am always opposed to raising taxes.

I’ll make a special mention of USED TO and BE USED TO:

USED TO describes something that happened in the past and no longer happens:

George used to take the bus to work. Now, he drives.

BE USED TO describes something we are comfortable or familiar with:

Tina is used to speaking in public. After all, she has been a politician for ten years.

Notice that we use a gerund with the second meaning of (BE) USED TO, but not the first. (Practice this topic here.)

Try a quiz!

Test yourself with an 8-question quiz on this topic here