Infinitive (Verbs)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

infinitives
C.S. Lewis's observation contains two infinitive phrases--one passive ("to be understood") and the other active ("to understand").

In English grammar, an infinitive is a base form of a verb--often preceded by the particle to--that can function as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb (but not as a main verb). The infinitive is a type of verbal. Adjective: infinitival.

Infinitives beginning with the particle to (as in "She wants to dance") shouldn't be confused with prepositional phrases beginning with the preposition to (as in "She drove to Chicago").

An infinitive phrase is made up of an infinitive plus any accompanying objectsmodifiers, or complements (as in "She plans to write a novel").

A negative infinitive phrase is commonly formed by placing the negative particle, not in front of to (as in "She told me not to drink the milk").

Distinctions are usually made between to-infinitives and zero infinitives.

See Examples and Observations below.

Etymology

From the Latin, "infinite"

Examples and Observations

  • "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
  • "Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save."
  • "Until the advent of television emptied the movie theaters, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve."
  • "A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized."
  • Functions of Infinitives and Infinitive Phrases
    Although infinitives often follow main verbs, they may appear in various places in a sentence and serve different functions. Here are some examples:
  • James Thurber on the Perfect Infinitive (to + have + past participle)
    "It is easy enough to say that a person should live in such a way as to avoid the perfect infinitive after the past conditional, but it is another matter to do it. The observance of the commonest amenities of life constantly leads us into that usage. Let us take a typical case. A gentleman and his wife, calling on friends, find them not at home. The gentleman decides to leave a note of regret couched in a few well-chosen words, and the first thing he knows he is involved in this: 'We would have liked to have found you in.' Reading it over, the gentleman is assailed by the suspicion that he has too many 'haves,' and that the whole business has somehow been put too far into the past. His first reaction is to remedy this by dating the note: '9 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, 1929.' This at once seems too formal, and with a sigh, he starts in again on the sentence itself. That is where he makes a fatal mistake. The simplest way out, as always, is to seek some other method of expressing the thought. In this case, the gentleman should simply dash off, 'Called. You were out. Sorry,' and go home to bed. What he does, however, is to lapse into a profound study of this particular grammatical situation, than which there is no more hazardous mental occupation...

    "First the victim will change the sentence to: 'We would have liked to find you in.' Now, as a matter of fact, this is correct (barring the use of 'would' instead of 'should'), but, alas, the gentleman does not realize it. Few people ever do realize it. This is because the present infinitive, 'to find,' seems to imply success. They, therefore, fall back on the perfect infinitive, 'to have found,' because it implies that the thing hoped for did not come to pass. They have fallen back on it so often that, after the ordinary past tenses, its use has come to be counted as idiomatic, even though it is incorrect...

    "There is a simple rule about past conditionals which will prevent a lapse into that deep contemplation which is so often fatal. After 'would have liked,' 'would have hoped,' 'would have feared,' etc., use the present infinitive. The implication of non-fulfillment is inherent in the governing verb itself, that is, in the 'would have liked,' etc. You don't have to shade the infinitive to get a nice note of frustration. Let it alone. Dr. H. W. Fowler himself says: 'Sometimes a writer, dimly aware that "would have liked to have done" is wrong, is yet so fascinated by the perfect infinitive that he clings to that at all costs.' That's what it is--a fascination--like a cobra's for a bird. Avoid the perfect infinitive after the past conditional as you would a cobra."

    Pronunciation

    in-FIN-i-tiv

    Sources

    Mark Twain

    Will Rogers

    Susan Sontag, "The Decay of Cinema," 1996

    Fred Allen

    James Thurber, "Our Own Modern English Usage: The Perfect Infinitive." The New Yorker, June 22, 1929