The Italian Infinitive: L'Infinito

An important and surprisingly versatile mode of Italian verbs

Swimming at the sea

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The infinitive, or l'infinito, expresses the concept of a verb without expressing a tense or the people acting in the verb (what is called an indefinite mode). It is what is expressed as amare, vedere, capire, parlare, mangiare, dormire, and what translates to the English to love, to see, to understand, to speak, to eat, to sleep, and so on.

What the Infinito Tells You

Every single verb, whether regular or irregular, has an infinitive, and in Italian they fall into three categories or conjugations based on their endings: verbs of the first conjugation, ending in -are (mangiare, studiare, pensare); verbs of the second conjugation, ending in -ere (vedere, sapere, bere); and verbs of the third conjugation, ending in -ire (capire, dormire, partire). The one-word infinitive covers the English counterpart of to eat, to sleep.

  • Am-are: to love
  • Cred-ere: to believe
  • Dorm-ire: to sleep

When you see those endings it tells you it is the infinitive of a verb.

Generally, when you look in the dictionary, under the infinitive lemma you will learn if the verb is regular or irregular and transitive or intransitive. Those are important things to know: the first will help you learn how to conjugate the verb, and the second—very much related—will tell you which auxiliary verb the verb in question uses in composite tenses such as the passato prossimo. Hence, it is helpful to learn those -are, -ere, and -ire endings. Also, because Italian verbs, as you know, descend from Latin, the relationship between the Italian and Latin infinitves of a verb can help you learn about the verb's irregulaties and how it conjugates. Sometimes under the infinitive entry you will find useful tips on how to conjugate the verb. The root of the verb—that am- and cred- from above—is what you attach your endings to when you conjugate the verb.

The Power of the Infinitive

One of the most powerful aspects of the Italian infinitive is that it often acts as a noun: il piacere (the pleasure), il dispiacere (the displeasure), il mangiare (the food), il potere (the power). As Italian dictionaries such as Treccani and Accademia della Crusca point out in great detail and variation, you will find the infinito sostantivato with great regularity, used often the way the gerund is used in English:

  • Mangiare è uno dei grandi piaceri della vita. Eating is one of life's great pleasures.
  • Mia nonna fa il mangiare (or da mangiare) buono. My grandmother makes great food (great eating).
  • Camminare fa bene. Walking is good for you.
  • Il bere troppo fa male. Drinking too much is bad for you.
  • Parlare bene è segno di una buona educazione. Speaking well (good speech) is a sign of a good education.
  • Mangiare troppo velocemente fa venire l'indigestione. Eating too fast causes indigestion.
  • Mischiare l'italiano tradizionale e dialetto è comune in molte parti d'Italia. Mixing traditional Italian and dialect is common in many parts of Italy.
  • Tra il dire e il fare c'è di mezzo il mare. Between saying and doing is the sea (Italian proverb).

The infinitive can also serve as the equivalent of an instruction, in cooking for example:

  • Cuocere per tre ore. Cook for three hours.
  • Tenere a bagno per 30 minuti. Soak for 30 minutes.
  • Lavare e asciugare l'insalata. Wash and dry the lettuce.

Auxiliary Verbs Are Frequent Companions of the Infinito

The super-important auxiliary verbsvolere (to want), dovere (to have to), and potere (to be able to)—when accompanied by a verb are always accompanied by the infinitive regardless of tense (the tense variation is expressed through the auxiliary). That's another reason to understand their importance.

  • Devo andare a casa. I have to go home.
  • Non voglio partire. I don't want to leave.
  • Avrei potuto dormire tutto il giorno. I could have slept all day long.
  • Non posso visitare il museo oggi perché è chiuso. I can't visit the museum because it is closed today.
  • Possiamo andare a mangiare? Can we go eat?
  • Volevo fare un giro del Duomo. I wanted to take a tour of the Duomo.
  • Non sono potuta andare a scuola oggi perché avevo la febbre. I was not able to go to school today because I had a fever.

Infinito and Other Verbs

In addition to the auxiliary verbs, other verbs, such as cercare, andare, trovare, provare, pensare, and sognare, are often accompanied by the infinitive.

  • Vado a prendere la mamma. I'm going to get mom.
  • Porto a lavare la macchina. I'm taking the car to be washed.
  • Provo a dormire un po'. I am going to try to sleep a little.
  • Cerco di mangiare meno. I am trying to eat less.
  • Pensavo di andare a casa. I was thinking of going home.
  • Ho sognato di avere un cane. I dreamed of having a dog.

As you can see, often the supporting verb and the infinitive are connected by a preposition (determined by the supporting verb): andare a; portare a; cercare di; provare a, pensare di.

Infinitive as an Order: The Negative Imperative

You give a negative command in Italian by using the simple infinitive preceded by non.

  • Non andare! Don't go!
  • Ti prego, non fumare! Please, don't smoke!
  • Non mi disturbare, sto dormendo. Don't bother me, I am sleeping.

The Past Infinito

The infinito has a past tense, indicating an action preceding the one in the primary sentence. The infinito passato is made from the auxiliary essere or avere (depending on whether the verb is transitive or intransitive) and the past participle. That's another reason it's important and interesting to understand and know if a verb is transitive or intransitve or both.

  • Aver dormito: having slept
  • Essere stato: having been
  • Avere capito: having understood
  • Avere parlato: having spoken
  • Avere saputo: having learned/known
  • Essere andato: having been or gone.

For example:

  • Dopo aver visto la campagna, ho deciso di comprare la casa. After having seen (seeing) the countryside I decided to buy the house.
  • Dopo aver visitato il museo ho capito quanto sono ignorante della storia Italiana. After visiting the museum I realized how little I know about Italian history.
  • Prima di aver parlato con la mamma non avevo capito quanto stesse male. Before speaking to mom I had not understood how sick she was.

Often the infinito passato, rendered in English with the gerund, is also used as a noun.

  • L'avere visto la nonna mi ha risollevata. Having seen (seeing) grandma made me feel better.
  • Avere saputo questa notizia mi ha resa triste. Having learned (learning) this news makes me sad.
  • Avere capito mi ha aiutata. Having understood (understanding) has helped me.