to refuse + Gerund


Senior Member
Hello again,

Recently, I came across the following sentence:

"He can never refuse helping his friends."

Strangely enough, none of my dictionaries or grammar books give any examples of "refuse" followed by the gerund. So I'd like to know if we could say "He can never refuse to help his friends" with exactly the same meaning or whether an infinitive does change the meaning here.

Thank you.
  • brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Interesting question. Your sentence (with the gerund) is certainly understandable, and perhaps even used by some native speakers, but for me it sounds ungrammatical: I always say refuse to <infinitive>.

    The problem is that in your example, the infinitive version would be ambiguous:

    (1) He can never refuse to help his friends.

    Who is he actually refusing? One reading is that he never personally refuses to help his friends, i.e. whether they ask him to help or not, he will always do his best to help. It's kind of like I refuse to eat meat, which it's a personal refusal, meaning "I refuse any desire to eat meat", and has nothing to do with refusing people's requests for me to eat meat.

    The other reading is that he never refuses their request to help, i.e. when they ask him for help, he never refuses (them). Another way of saying it would be: When his friends ask for help, he never refuses.

    Now, there is a very similar in construction to refuse to <verb>, namely can't help <verb-ing>. The problem is that in your example, we end up with two help's, which sounds a bit odd:

    (2) He can't help helping his friends.

    This construction is actually much more common, I think, than refuse, and it has only the first reading I gave above: namely, he can't refuse his personal desire/drive to help his friends. (It has nothing to do with their requesting help, which they may or may not do.)

    Now getting to your example, never refuse <verb-ing>, it actually sounds like a mixture of (1) and (2):

    (3) He never refuses helping his friends.

    This sentence sounds like an ungrammatical version of (1), with the meaning of (2). So it's certainly understandable, but I find it strange. Then again, it could be away of avoiding the help helping construction, as well as the ambiguity of (1).


    Senior Member
    Well, that's the way my textbooks are:( Thank God, I have some experience and intuition and can usually suspect when there's something fishy.

    I appreciate your help, Brian.
    Thanks a lot.
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