Infinitive Phrase (Verbs)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia



In English grammar, an infinitive phrase is a verbal construction made up of the particle to and the base form of a verb, with or without modifiers, complements, and objects. Also called an infinitival phrase and a to-infinitive phrase.

An infinitive phrase can function as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb, and it can appear in various places in a sentence.

Examples and Observations

  • The only way to never fail is to never attempt anything.
  • To laugh is to live profoundly.”(Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979)
  • "The specific images presented on film are often hard to remember in the same way that dreams are hard to remember."(J. F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream. Academic Press, 2008)
  • "[N]ot everyone has the same ability to remember dreams."(Peretz Lavie, The Enchanted World of Sleep. Yale University Press, 1996)
  • "In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet."(Winston Churchill, quoted in Churchill by Himself by Richard Langworth. PublicAffairs, 2008)
  • "I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you."(Mark Hamill as Luke in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977)
  • "Jane and Frank had driven cross-country to rescue you from the paint-peeling orphanage in Lovelock."(Charles Stross, Rule 34. Ace, 2011)
  • "I'm honored to be the first woman to have the opportunity to command the shuttle."(U.S. Air Force Colonel Eileen Collins, July 1999)
  • "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."(Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
  • "Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the sky--to be realistic."(Graham Swift, Waterland. Poseidon Press, 1983)

Infinitives With Delayed Subjects

There is a relationship between it and the infinitive phrase in the sentence 'It took so long to get there'? One role that an infinitive can fill is that of the delayed subject. Sentences with delayed subjects always begin with the dummy it, a dummy element that takes the place of some word(s) in a sentence. . . .

"In the caller's sentence, the dummy it fills the place of the subject to get there. The true subject, the infinitive phrase, is delayed till the end of the sentence. To verify that this is truly a delayed subject, replace the dummy it with the infinitive phrase.

To get there took so long.

The infinitive phrase moves easily from its place at the end as a delayed subject to the front of the sentence where it becomes a normal subject."
(Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Book, 2004)

Infinitives With For

"[A] variant of the infinitive phrase begins with for and is often followed by a personal noun or pronoun. Examples for these are:

'Physicians are generally eligible for independent licensure to practice primary care specialities at this point.'
'Federal officials said they leave time for parents to make arrangements for their children, and refer them to a social service agency if necessary.'
'I said all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians.'

In general speech and writing, we tend to shorten infinitives to the particle plus verb base for general reference.

'I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians.'
'I said, all right; then the thing . . . to do was to go for the magicians.'

However, if the reference is specific to a person, thing or topic, it is necessary to include it.

'It was no new thing for David to "play" the sunset.'
'By the end of a fortnight David had brought his father's violin for Joe to practice on.'
'Whichever way it was, there was always sure to be something waiting at the end for him and his violin to discover.'

Because the reference is made specifically to David, Joe, and him and his violin, the infinitive phrase cannot be shortened without losing part of the meaning of the sentence."

(Bernard O'Dwyer, Modern English Structures: Form, Function, And Position, 2nd ed. Broadview, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Infinitive Phrase (Verbs)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Infinitive Phrase (Verbs). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Infinitive Phrase (Verbs)." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2023).