What are Infinitives in English Grammar? Definitions and Usage

Marcus Froland

As you explore the intricacies of English grammar, it’s essential to grasp the concept of infinitive definitions and their versatile functions within sentences. Infinitives, better known as verbals in English, are unique verb forms that allow you to discuss actions in a more general sense.

This complete guide will teach you all about the infinitive and show you how understanding these important parts of English grammar can help your writing and speaking.

Exploring the Basics of Infinitives

Understanding the building blocks of basic infinitives is essential for mastering English grammar. As mentioned earlier, infinitives are created by combining “to” with the verb’s base form. They further branch out into infinitive phrases, verbal nouns, verbal adjectives, and verbal adverbs, each serving its own purpose within a sentence.

In this section, we’ll take a closer look at how infinitives function as different parts of speech, their usage in negation, and the diversity they bring to sentence constructions.

Grammar is the backbone of any language, and infinitives are a vital component in English grammar mastery.

  • Subjects: “To travel is to live.”
  • Direct objects: “I want to learn.”
  • Subject complements: “His goal is to succeed.”

Their adaptability doesn’t end there. Infinitives can also function as:

  • Adjectives: “I have a paper to write.”
  • Adverbs: “She works hard to provide for her family.”

Though infinitives appear similar to verbs, they differ in that they do not express tense. Instead, they convey the general idea of the action. Negation with infinitives is achieved by adding “not” before the infinitive, like “not to read.”

Let’s examine some common combinations of different infinitive forms along with their roles in sentences:

Infinitive Form Role in Sentence Example
Basic Infinitives Subjects, Direct Objects, Subject Complements “To err is human.”, “She loves to sing.”, “His ambition is to inspire.”
Infinitive Phrases Adjectives, Adverbs “Do you have a book to recommend?”, “He stayed late to finish his work.”
Verbal Nouns Nouns “Swimming is her favorite pastime.”
Verbal Adjectives Adjectives “She had a bruised ego.”
Verbal Adverbs Adverbs “She talked excitedly.”

As you can see, infinitives and their derivatives bring a rich layer of grammatical flexibility. Consequently, mastering their usage will significantly improve your understanding and command of the English language.

Types of Infinitives and Their Functions

In this section, we’ll explore the two main categories of infinitives: full infinitives (also known as to-infinitives) and bare infinitives (sometimes referred to as zero infinitives). Each type of infinitive serves different purposes in English grammar and has its unique rules and applications. Understanding when to use full or bare infinitives is crucial to mastering infinitive grammar.

The Role of Full Infinitives

Full infinitives, formed by the base verb preceded by “to,” have an extensive range of applications in sentences. They work effectively as:

  1. Nouns: To learn is the goal.
  2. Adjectives: I have a book to read.
  3. Adverbs: She’s tall enough to be a model.

They can indicate purpose or intention and modify nouns by providing more information about the noun’s action. Full infinitives can also supplement adjectives and integrate into phrases with most relative pronouns, with the exception of “why” (which pairs better with bare infinitives).

Full infinitive example: She decided to take a break after the test.

Full infinitives also follow specific verbs, effectively indicating a secondary action or state. For example,

  • She wants to travel around the world.
  • I promised to help them with their project.

When to Use Bare Infinitives

Bare infinitives are just the base verb forms without the “to.” While less common, they play a significant role in modal verbs and perception verbs:

  1. Modal verbs: can, may, must, should
  2. Perception verbs: see, hear, feel

Bare infinitive example: I must finish this task before the deadline.

Bare infinitives also work well with certain special verbs and the relative pronoun “why,” especially in questions or suggestive queries:

  • Let’s go out for dinner.
  • I heard him whistle a tune.
Full Infinitives (To-Infinitives) Bare Infinitives (Zero Infinitives)
to sing sing
to dance dance
to jump jump

Full and bare infinitives play an essential role in English grammar. Recognizing their functions and applications will help you wield them effectively to enhance the quality and clarity of your writing. Remember to consider the modal verbs, perception verbs, and other characteristics that dictate when to use one type of infinitive over the other.

Common Verbs That Require Infinitives

Understanding the various verbs that frequently require infinitives will improve your command of English grammar. Generally, verbs followed by infinitives can be split into four categories:

  1. Verbs that take full infinitives
  2. Infinitive object verbs, which require an actor before the infinitive
  3. Verbs with to-infinitives
  4. Verbs with bare infinitives

Verbs that Take Full Infinitives

Some verbs typically take full infinitives (to + verb). A few examples include plan, start, refuse, and promise.

He refused to give up his seat.

I promise to finish the project on time.

Infinitive Object Verbs

Infinitive object verbs necessitate the presence of an actor before the infinitive. Some such verbs are advise, encourage, and permit.

She encouraged her friend to study harder.

He permitted the student to retake the test.

Verbs with To-Infinitives

Some verbs accommodate infinitives both with and without an acting subject. Examples of these verbs include ask, expect, want, and need:

I asked to see the manager.

You need to improve your writing skills.

He expects to graduate with honors.

Verbs with Bare Infinitives

Bare infinitives are used without the preceding “to” and most commonly follow modal verbs like can, may, must, and verbs of perception such as see and hear.

You must finish your work before leaving.

He can play the guitar very well.

Mastering the use of infinitives with the various verbs that require them not only enhances your writing but also strengthens your understanding of English grammar. By being familiar with the categories and examples discussed here, you can make a significant impact on your ability to express complex ideas in English.

Navigating the Challenges of Infinitive Usage

In the world of infinitives, learners must navigate various challenges to ensure proper usage in different contexts. In this section, we’ll explore two key aspects: split infinitives and the nuances of both passive and continuous infinitives.

Understanding Split Infinitives

A split infinitive occurs when an adverb or adverbial phrase is inserted between “to” and the verb of a full infinitive, such as “to boldly go.” The acceptability of split infinitives varies, with some arguing against their use in formal writing and others claiming it to be grammatically sound. For maintaining infinitive clarity, it is generally better to keep connected words together, so unless clarity or emphasis is improved by the split, it is better to avoid it.

For example, instead of “She decided to quickly leave,” you could write, “She decided to leave quickly.”

The Nuances of Passive and Continuous Infinitives

Infinitives can also embody passive and continuous forms, which further extend their versatility:

  1. Passive infinitives use “to be” plus a past participle to indicate an action received by the subject. They are useful for both full and bare infinitives. Example: “The film is likely to be watched.”
  2. Continuous infinitives, signaled by “to be” followed by a present participle, represent ongoing actions in infinitives. They can be applied to both infinitive types. Example: “She seems to be studying.”

In addition, there are perfect, perfect continuous, and passive infinitive variants that can combine with other verbs to convey conditional moods or continuing actions that are now complete:

Infinitive Type Example
Perfect Infinitive to have finished
Perfect Continuous Infinitive to have been reading
Passive Perfect Infinitive to have been completed

Understanding the various forms and nuances of infinitives allows you to use them effectively within your writing. Maintaining clarity while tackling challenges such as split infinitives, passive and continuous infinitives, and their combinations, can lead to more natural and engaging prose.

Infinitives in Action: Practical Examples and Tips

Using infinitives effectively can enhance the clarity and complexity of your writing. To demonstrate this, let’s explore different sentence constructs that illustrate their roles as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and subject complements. For example:

To sleep is her favorite activity (infinitive as a noun).
The decision to stay was difficult (infinitive as an adjective).
He left early to catch the train (infinitive as an adverb).

Highlighting practical infinitive examples, such as how they serve as objects after certain verbs and modifiers for nouns, can provide more information about actions. For instance:

She wants to learn French (infinitive after a verb).
The opportunity to travel is exciting (infinitive modifying a noun).

Furthermore, exercises and practical activities can reinforce your understanding of infinitives by identifying their function within various sentence structures. When writing, utilizing infinitives can also be a powerful tool for conveying a sense of necessity, possibility, or action in progress.

Remember these infinitive writing tips to ensure infinitive clarity in sentences and create engaging, persuasive, and original content that resonates with your readers.