Understanding the 'to'-Infinitive in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A verb phrase made up of the particle to and the base form of a verb. For example, to live, to love, to learn. Contrast with the zero infinitive (live, love, learn).

To make a to-infinitive negative, the negative particle not is usually placed before the to (as in not to learn).

Examples of 'to' Infinitive

  • "So I took a walk. Or rather, I decided to take a walk, which is not quite the same thing."
    (Eva Figes, Nelly's Version. Secker & Warburg, 1977)
  • "To walk beside my father down Sixth Street was to hear the asphalt sing."
    (John Updike, The Centaur. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
  • "I love to eat. I love to read about food. I love to look into shop windows at food."
    (Leo Lerman, The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, ed. by Stephen Pascal. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
  • "So many things in life seem to be a test of some kind. Ten times a day, if you're a boy and hope to be a man, you're called upon to brace yourself, to make a greater effort, to show a courage you don't really possess. Ten times a day you're terrified that once again you're going to reveal your weakness, your cowardliness, your general lack of character and unfitness for man's estate."
    (Michael Frayn, Spies. Metropolitan Books, 2002)
  • "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."​
    (President Franklin Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933)
  • "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
    (Woody Allen)
  • "It's always easier to learn something than to use what you've learned."
    (Chaim Potok, The Promise)
  • No one should have to pass any one's test, or prove anything in a research study to live and learn in the mainstream of school and community.
  • The children were instructed not to talk or laugh but to act as serious as possible.
  • "Depressed, you dial a voice to talk you out of committing suicide, to recite a prayer, or to bring you to a sexual climax."
    (Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak. William Morrow, 1987)
  • "I intend to live forever. So far, so good."
    (Steven Wright)

Uses of the To-Infinitive

  • "The various uses of the to-infinitive:
    - verb + object (noun/pronoun) + to-infinitive
    Ashima asked Tarun to wait for her.
    - adjectives + to-infinitive
    My parents will be happy to meet you.
    - verbs + to-infinitive
    Dolly wanted to buy that green dress.
    - nouns/pronouns + to-infinitive
    The child wanted a toy to play with. The to-infinitive is also used to shorten sentences and to join sentences."
    (Paramita Ray and Meenakshi Puri, Longman English Grammar 6, rev. ed. Pearson, 2007)
  • "The to-infinitive (or a to-infinitive clause) is used:​
    after many catenative verbs: I want to know
    as a nominal: To know all is to forgive all
    as an adverbial clause: Pull tab to open
    as a post-modifier: a book to read, nothing to do
    as an adjective complement: nice to know, hard to imagine." (Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994)
  • "As the following examples show, the to-infinitive can be combined with the perfect, progressive and passive constructions: to go, to have taken, to be dying
    to be seen, to have been eating, to have been caught To-infinitive verbs are used to introduce to-infinitive clauses, a common class of nonfinite clauses."
    (Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

Verbs Followed by Infinitives

  • "No easy rule explains which verbs are followed by infinitives (e.g., want, expect, hope, decide, and refuse) and which are followed by gerunds (e.g., enjoy, avoid, risk, finish, and deny). To add to the difficulty for learners, some verbs (e.g., like, begin, start, and remember) may be followed by either, depending on the specific meaning to be conveyed. Saying, 'I remembered to do it,' for example, is different from saying, 'I remembered doing it.'"
    (Elizabeth Coelho, Adding English: A Guide to Teaching in Multilingual Classrooms. Pippin Publishing, 2004)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'to'-Infinitive in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/to-infinitive-meaning-1692471. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Understanding the 'to'-Infinitive in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/to-infinitive-meaning-1692471 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'to'-Infinitive in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/to-infinitive-meaning-1692471 (accessed March 30, 2023).