The third kind of verbal is easy to recognize, but a bit tricky when you analyze its function in a sentence.



As we said in Chapter 14, an infinitive verb is usually the present form of the verb preceded by the particle to: to laugh, to be, to seem, to break, to pontificate, to discombobulate. There’s an infinitive for every verb in English, except the modal auxiliaries.

But infinitive verbs are never used as a main verb or as an aux- iliary verb. Like the other verbals, infinitives perform the functions of other parts of speech, and infinitives are particularly versatile. Infinitives can be used nominally, adjectivally, and adverbially; but, like ordinary verbs, they can still take complements and be modified by adverbs.

First, infinitives can be used nominally, in any way that you’d use a noun:


To quit now would be a mistake. [a subject]


He likes to run. [a direct object]



His intention, to explain the law, is reasonable. [an appositive]


Our goal is to win.

[a predicate nominative]


His intention was to make friends. [another predicate nominative]


To know her is to trust her.

[a subject and a predicate nominative]


Notice that sometimes you can recognize nominal infinitives with this simple test: You can often replace them with gerunds without changing the meaning of the sentence:


To quit now would be a mistake. Quitting now would be a mistake.


He likes to run. He likes running.


This test won’t work in every instance. It won’t work, for example, in To know her is to trust her. (We can’t say Knowing her is trusting her.)

Second, infinitives can be used as adjectives, following a noun or certain linking verbs:


I need a book to read. [a modifier of book]


An opportunity to succeed is a wonderful thing. [a modifier of opportunity]




I’d like a chance to explain. [a modifier of chance]


Notice that in these examples, the infinitives specify the purpose of the nouns they modify: I need a book. Why? I need a book to read.

The following adjectival infinitives follow linking verbs, and they’re both predicate adjectives, describing the subject of the sentence.


He appears to have some money. They seem to be jerks.


Notice that, in sentences like these, you can often replace the entire infinitive phrase with a roughly synonymous adjective:


He appears wealthy. They seem arrogant.


Third, infinitives can be used as adverbs, modifying verbs or adjectives. Modifying verbs, the infinitive is often moveable and indicates how or why the action is performed:


She plays hard to win. [Why does she play hard?]


To succeed, he studies every day. [Why does he study?]


To listen well, you need a quiet place. [Why do you need that quiet place?]


The adverbial infinitives above, like many adverbs and adverbials, are moveable:




To win, she plays hard.

He studies every day to succeed.


Modifying adjectives, the adverbial infinitive appears after the adjective and gives you information about the intent or purpose associated with the modified adjective:


He was ready to study. [For what was he ready?]


I’m happy to help.

[What are you happy to do?]


Eager to please, the new employees arrived early. [What are they eager to do?]


Notice that the adverbial infinitives in these last three examples are not movable.

In a few cases, infinitives are used without the to particle. All of the underlined phrases below are infinitive phrases, but some don’t contain the particle:


I want him to win the race. I saw him win the race.

I allowed him to win the race. I let him win the race.

I’ll ask him to go. I’ll have him go.

I’ll force him to leave. I’ll make him leave.


The absence of the to particle is determined by the verb that precedes the infinitive phrase: A small number of transitive verbs




(such as saw, let, make, and have) make the to unnecessary—you simply cannot insert to into those sentences.

Following most verbs, however, the infinitive must have to. (In the exercises in these chapters, we will always use infinitives with the to particle.)

By the way, some grammarians call an infinitive that is missing to a bare infinitive (which is about as risqué as grammarians ever get).

Like gerunds and participles, infinitives can be used with direct objects, with adverbs, and with other grammatical entities associated with the verb. (See the examples above wherein the race is a direct object.)

Infinitives can even have subjects, which perform the action of the infinitive:


I like my children to read every day.

[My children is the subject of the infinitive; they do the reading.

Every day is an adverbial phrase.]


I like Kelly to enjoy these nightly readings.

[Kelly is the subject of the infinitive verb; she does the enjoying.

These nightly readings is the direct object of to enjoy.]


I need you to go to the store today.

[You is the subject; to the store and today are adverbial, modifying the infinitive.]


I want her to enjoy reading.

[Her is the subject of the infinitive; reading, a gerund, is the direct object of the infinitive.]


Notice the last example above: When a pronoun precedes the infinitive as the subject of that infinitive, it will (strangely) be in the objective case:




I like them to read every day.

I need him to go to the store today. I want us to enjoy reading.



All the infinitives we’ve seen so far are linking or intransitive, or they are transitive and active. But there are other forms.

A less often used but important variant is the passive infinitive, constructed with the infinitive of be (i.e., to be) followed by the past participle of a main verb (to be recognized, to be known, to be continued).

In these examples, nominal passive infinitives follow transitive verbs and function as direct objects:


I’m nervous about my surgery, so I prefer to be driven to the hospital.


I needed to be helped, but no one was nearby.


He has longed to be recognized by his colleagues for his contributions.


He did not expect to be apprehended by the authorities for his misdeeds.


These passive infinitives are subjects:


To be recognized for his contributions was his goal. To be apprehended was his fear.


Passive infinitives can also be predicate nominatives and appositives:




His goal was to be recognized for his efforts.

He never achieved his goal, to be recognized for his work.


And there are also adverbial passive infinitives. In the following examples, the adverbial passives are moveable:


To be prepared for your finals, study throughout the semester. To be found, the lost hiker built a fire on the hill.


And in the next examples, the adverbial passive infinitives modify the adjectives preceding them:


She was ready to be tested. They were eager to be heard.



The infrequently used perfect infinitive is constructed with the auxiliary have (never has or had) followed by the past participle of a main verb (to have known, to have seen, to have continued), as in these examples of nominal perfect infinitives used as subjects:


To have known Lincoln would be remarkable.


To have heard him deliver the Gettysburg Address would be thrilling.


To have continued performing the play after the announcement was impossible.


These perfect infinitive phrases are direct objects:


The police did not expect to have apprehended the criminal by this time.



We had hoped to have seen our new nephew by this time.


Perfect infinitives can be adverbial, too:


They are known to have lived here for many years.


We seldom encounter the passive and perfect infinitives be- cause we usually express the idea in some simpler way: People know that they lived here for many years.

There are still other, even rarer, forms of the infinitive: They can be perfect progressive (to have been speaking) and passive perfect (to have been shown), but we had hoped to have been finished with this topic by now.



The split infinitive.

One of the best-known rules of prescriptive grammar says that we must not split infinitives. That is, we must not put an adverb between to and the verb:


He wants to quickly finish college. He wants to finish college quickly.


Work hard to gradually improve your writing. Work hard to improve your writing gradually.


As the second example in each pair demonstrates, it’s usually easy to fix a split infinitive. In some contexts, however, many writers occasionally and judiciously do the splits. As in all good writing, tread carefully.




Go dangle your infinitives elsewhere, bub.

There can be dangling infinitives, which, like dangling partici- ples, do not clearly or logically work with the rest of the sentence. A passive verb elsewhere in the clause often creates this problem:


To get to the market today, your chores should be done early.


To be heard in this large room, the microphone must be adjusted.


Make the independent clause active, and the infinitive phrase usually makes better sense:


To get to the market today, you should do your chores early. To be heard in this large room, we must adjust the microphone.


Respectable people never dangle their infinitives (at least, not in public).






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Interactive Grammar Book by Sushumna Rao Tadinada; Professor Moustapha Diack; and Diola Bagayoko, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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