The Definition and Use of Infinitives

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Would you know what an infinitive was if you saw one?

To cough, to crush, to laugh, to yell, to fall, to throw, to listen, to chuckle, to snort – each of these are infinitives. An infinitive will typically always start with to and be followed by the simplest form of a verb.  Like this:

TO + SIMPLE VERB = INFINITIVE

Keep in mind: Since an infinitive is not actually a verb, you are not able to add s, es, ed or ing  to the ending. Never, ever!

Infinitives can be adjectives, nouns or even adverbs.

Here are a few examples:

To sleep is the only thing that Sarah can think of doing after she finishes studying for her sociology midterm.

To sleep acts as a noun because, in the example above, it is the subject of the sentence.

Regardless of how exciting the movie was, Justin does not want to read the book his mother has bought him, he turns his head and refuses to look.

To look acts as a noun because it is the direct object for the verb refuses.

Wherever Sandra goes, she always brings a bottle of water to sip in case she gets thirsty.

To sip acts as an adjective because it modifies bottle.

Kyle braved the cold snowstorm to deliver medicine to Mr. Jones, who was bedridden with the flu.

To deliver acts as an adverb because it explains why Kyle braved the winter weather.

Learning to spot an infinitive when it is missing the ‘to’.

It was mentioned previously that infinitives will almost always start with to. However, there are times when exceptions occur. An infinitive will drop to whenever it comes after certain verbs. Those verbs are hear, feel, help, make, let, watch and see.

The combination looks like this:

SPECIAL VERB + DIRECT OBJECT + INFINITIVE – TO

Here are a few examples to consider:

The moment that Julia felt the spider crawl up her leg, she knew that it was time to get out of the attic.

Felt = special verb; spider = direct object; crawl = infinitive minus the to

When Kelly heard the lunch bell ring, she dropped her tools and walked hurriedly to her locker to grab her lunch pail so she could make it to the lunchroom before all of the good tables were taken.

Heard = special verb; lunch bell =direct object; ring = infinitive minus the to.

Even though Mrs. Fritz spent an entire recess helping the class understand parallelograms, they still failed the midterm.

Helping = special verb; the class = direct object; understand = infinitive minus the to.

Because Jake has never had a bike of his own, I took my old bike out of the shed and let him ride my blue Supercycle.

Let = special verb; him = direct object; ride = infinitive minus the to.

Should you ever split infinitives?

Typically, the rule of thumb is that no word should be used to separate to from the following simple verb form. In the event that a word does come between to and the corresponding verb, a split infinitive results. Here are a few examples of split infinitives:

INCORRECT: Jennifer hopes to quickly finish her reading assignment so that she can return to the more entertaining game of Fortnight that she had to quit playing.

CORRECT: Jennifer hopes to finish her reading assignment quickly so that she can return to the more entertaining game of Fortnight that she had been playing.

There are English professors who believe that the rule against splitting infinitives is set in stone and must never be broken. In their eyes, ignoring this rule is akin to kicking a neighbor’s dog, or disobeying the rules of your parents. If your faced with an English teacher who shares this belief, it’s probably best to just not split infinitives rather than to try to plead your case later on.

If your teacher is open minded to split infinitives, go ahead and think of the split as a construction – not as an error. For the most part, split infinitives are completely acceptable, especially in informal writing.

As a matter of fact, an infinitive might occasional need to be split, this could be for meaning or it could be for sentence structure. One of the most well known split infinitives was heard at the start of every single Star Trek episode ever made: To boldly go where no one has gone before…
Imagine is that was written as ‘boldly to go’ or ‘to go boldly’, it would never have caught on as strongly as the original.

When deciding whether or not you should split an infinitive, take into account your audience. If you are writing something that is very formal, and you can arrange words in a way that avoids split infinitive, then do that. Otherwise, if you like how the infinitive split sounds and know that doing so will not diminish the effectiveness of your writing, do ahead and stick with it.

Infinitives – How To Use Them in English

In English, whenever we speak of infinitives, we are typically referring to the present infinitive. Which makes sense, since it is the most common form. However, there are four other types of infinitives: the perfect infinitive, the perfect continuous infinitive, the continuous infinitive and the passive infinitive.

The present infinitive has two forms:

  • The to-infinitive: to + simple verb
    1. Examples: to sit, to eat, to have, to remember
  • The zero infinitive:simple verb
    1. Example: sit, eat, have, remember

The negative infinitive is made by adding not to the start of any form of the infinitive.

For example:

  • I decided not to go to the party.
  • She asked me not to be early.
  • I’d like you not to eat so much.
  • I’d rather not drink milk.
  • I might not sing.

The purpose of the to-infinitive

To-infinitives are used in several different sentence constructions, typically used to express the purpose of something or a person’s view on a particular subject. The to-infinitive can be used following multiple verb collections as well.

The to-infinitive can be used to demonstrate purpose or intent of a specific action.

In this scenario, to has to has to mean the same as in order to or so as to.

For example:

  • He came to collect the rent money.
  • The four brothers went to cut fire wood.
  • I am calling to ask you to work for me tomorrow.
  • Your brother has gone to finish his chores.

The to-infinitive can be used as the sentence subject.

This is the most common (and more formal) use of infinitives in written English.

For example:

  • To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • To know him is to love him.
  • To visit The Grand Ole Opry is my life long dream.
  • To understand the human brain, that is our objective.

The to-infinitive can be used to demonstrate what something may or will be used for.

In this situation, the infinitive will follow a noun or pronoun.

For example:

  • The dog needs a yard to run in.
  • I would like a bottle of water to drink.
  • I don’t have anything nice to wear.
  • Would you like something to drink?

What about when a to-infinitive comes after an adjective?

There is a common pattern that should be followed whenever using a to-infinitive with an adjective. Typically, these phrases will be formed with the following: subject + to be + adjective + (for / of someone) + to-infinitive + (rest of sentence)

Subject+ to be+ adjective(+ for / of someone)+ to-infinitive(+ rest of sentence)
ItIsGood To read 
ItIsGoodOf themTo readTo you
ItIsImportant To be kind. 
ItIsImportantFor youTo be kindTo your sister
IAmHappy To behome
The catIsHappy To eatThe mouse

Using the to-infinitive to pass judgement or make a comment

In order to use the to-infinitive to pass judgement or when making a comment about a noun, the pattern that must be followed is: subject + to be + noun phrase + to-infinitive

Subject+ to be+ noun phrase+ to-infinitive
ItWasA fun placeTo visit
ThatIsA good wayTo learn to drive
What she saidWasNot very niceTo say
ThisIsThe correct thingTo buy
SallyIsThe nicest personTo talk to

Using the to-infinitive with adverbs

The to-infinitive is used quite often with adverbs too and enough to demonstrate the reason for satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  The pattern dictates that too and enough are placed either before or after the adjective, adverb, or noun that they will modify in the same way that they would be if the to-infinitive were not there.

They are then followed by the to-infinitive in order to explain the reason why the quality is sufficient or insufficient. Typically, the to-infinitive and everything following it can be removed and the sentence would still be grammatically correct.

For example:

  • There’s too much salt to put in this shaker.
  • I had too many drinks to drive.
  • This oatmeal is too hot to eat.
  • He was too tired to play.
  • He arrived too late to see the movie.
  • I’ve had enough coffee to drink.
  • He is old enough to make his own decisions.
  • There isn’t enough ice to skate on.
  • You are not old enough to buy cigarettes.

What about using to-infinitive with questions?

It is possible to follow the verbs ask, explain, decide, know, forget, show, tell and understand by a question word like where, what, how, who and when+ the to-infinitive.

For example:

  • She asked me how to use the computer.
  • Do you understand what to do?
  • Tell me when to let go of the rope.
  • I’ve forgotten where to put my shoes.
  • I am not sure that he knows who to call for help.

The role of the zero infinitive

Using the zero infinitive after auxiliaries..

  • He can’t speak with you right now.
  • You should give him some money.
  • Should I speak with him?
  • Would you like some pie?
  • I might stay one more night in the hotel.
  • You must go before 0800h.

Using the zero infinitive after perception verbs: verb + object + zero infinitive

For example:

  • He saw her jump from the dock.
  • We heard them open the box.
  • They saw us run into the forest.
  • She felt the wind on her back.

Using the zero infinitive after ‘make’ and ‘let’

For example:

  • His parents make him call them every night.
  • Let’s go to the movies this weekend.
  • You made her go with you.
  • Don’t make me babysit my little sister.

Using the zero infinitive after the phrase ‘had better’

For example:

  • We had better grab a bite to eat on the way home.
  • He had better ask her to the prom.
  • We had better book a room for the night of the big game.
  • You’d better give me your telephone number.
  • They had better practice if they want to win the exhibition game.

Using the zero infinitive phrase with ‘why’

For example:

  • Why wait until next week?
  • Why not ask her out right now?
  • Why leave before the class is over?
  • Why walk when we can drive?

Why not buy a new car?