Definition and Examples of Infinitive Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

C.S. Lewis's observation contains two infinitive phrases
C.S. Lewis's observation contains two infinitive phrases.

In English grammar, an infinitive is the base form of a verb that can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb. "Infinitive" comes from the Latin word infinitus meaning endless. The infinitive is a type of verbal, or word derived from a verb that does not function as a verb, that is almost always preceded by the particle "to".

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitives beginning with "to" and making up infinitive phrases are separate from prepositional phrases that use "to" (as in "She drove to Chicago") to describe movement.

An infinitive phrase is made up of the particle "to", an infinitive, and any accompanying objects, modifiers, or complements.

Examples of infinitive phrases:

  • She plans to write a novel.
  • They are going to run around the block.
  • The dog was not hungry enough to eat.

A negative infinitive phrase can be formed by placing the negative particle "not" in front of "to".

Examples of negative infinitive phrases:

  • She told me not to drink the milk.
  • I was going to really try not to be late.
  • They were warned not to go near the poison ivy.

Examples of Infinitives in Literature and Film

Mark Twain: "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
Will Rogers: "Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save."
Susan Sontag: "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."
Fred Allen: "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 usually follow main verbs, they may appear in various places and serve different functions in a sentence.

Here are a few examples of infinitives that do not follow main verbs and/or are being used as sentence parts other than subjects or objects:

  • To raise a child is the highest form of education.—"to raise" is the subject of the verb "is"
  • We want to raise our children in a safe environment.—"to raise" is the object of the verb "want"
  • Her only goal is to graduate.—"to graduate" is the subject complement after the linking verb "is"
  • Each child has a list of chores to complete.—"to complete" is the adjective modifying the noun phrase "a list of chores"

James Thurber on the Perfect Infinitive

A perfect infinitive is defined as "to" + "have" + a past participle. James Thurber spoke about perfect infinitives in his article for The New Yorker titled "Our Own Modern English Usage: The Perfect Infinitive.” Below is an excerpt from this article that describes the perilous situation of too many "haves".

Too Many "Haves"

"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...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.' ...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...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...Avoid the perfect infinitive after the past conditional as you would a cobra."

Sources

  • Sontag, Susan. “The Decay of Cinema.” The New York Times, 25 Feb. 1996.
  • Thurber, James. “Our Own Modern English Usage: The Perfect Infinitive.” The New Yorker, 22 June 1929.