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1.19: To Boldly Verb Infinitives

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    The third kind of verbal is easy to recognize, but a bit tricky when you analyze its function in a sentence.


    As we said in Chapter 14, an infinitive verb is usually the present form of the verb preceded by the particle to: to laugh, to be, to seem, to break, to pontificate, to discombobulate. There’s an infinitive for every verb in English, except the modal auxiliaries.

    But infinitive verbs are never used as a main verb or as an auxiliary verb. Like the other verbals, infinitives perform the functions of other parts of speech, and infinitives are particularly versatile. Infinitives can be used nominally, adjectivally, and adverbially; but, like ordinary verbs, they can still take complements and be modified by adverbs.

    First, infinitives can be used nominally, in any way that you’d use a noun:

    To quit now would be a mistake. [a subject]

    He likes to run. [a direct object]

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    His intention, to explain the law, is reasonable. [an appositive]

    Our goal is to win.
    [a predicate nominative]

    His intention was to make friends. [another predicate nominative]

    To know her is to trust her.
    [a subject and a predicate nominative]

    Notice that sometimes you can recognize nominal infinitives with this simple test: You can often replace them with gerunds without changing the meaning of the sentence:

    To quit now would be a mistake. Quitting now would be a mistake.

    He likes to run. He likes running.

    This test won’t work in every instance. It won’t work, for example, in To know her is to trust her. (We can’t say Knowing her is trusting her.)

    Second, infinitives can be used as adjectives, following a noun or certain linking verbs:

    I need a book to read. [a modifier of book]

    An opportunity to succeed is a wonderful thing. [a modifier of opportunity]

    I’d like a chance to explain. [a modifier of chance]

    Notice that in these examples, the infinitives specify the purpose of the nouns they modify: I need a book. Why? I need a book to read.

    The following adjectival infinitives follow linking verbs, and they’re both predicate adjectives, describing the subject of the sentence.

    He appears to have some money. They seem to be a jerk.

    Notice that, in sentences like these, you can often replace the entire infinitive phrase with a roughly synonymous adjective:

    He appears wealthy. They seem arrogant.

    Third, infinitives can be used as adverbs, modifying verbs or adjectives. Modifying verbs, the infinitive is often moveable and indicates how or why the action is performed:

    She plays hard to win. [Why does she play hard?]

    To succeed, he studies every day. [Why does he study?]

    To listen well, you need a quiet place. [Why do you need that quiet place?]

    Notice that the adverbial infinitives above, like many adverbs and adverbials, are moveable:

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    To win, she plays hard.
    He studies every day to succeed.

    Modifying adjectives, the adverbial infinitive appears after the adjective and gives you information about the intent or purpose associated with the modified adjective:

    He was ready to study. [For what was he ready?]

    I’m happy to help.
    [What are you happy to do?]

    Eager to please, the new employees arrived early. [What are they eager to do?]

    Notice that the adverbial infinitives in these last three examples are not movable.

    In a few cases, infinitives are used without the to particle. All of the underlined phrases below are infinitive phrases, but some don’t contain the particle:

    I want him to win the race.
    I saw him win the race.
    I allowed him to win the race. I let him win the race.
    I’ll ask him to go.
    I’ll have him go.
    I’ll force him to leave.
    I’ll make him leave.

    The absence of the to particle is determined by the verb that precedes the infinitive phrase: A small number of transitive verbs

    (such as saw, let, make, and have) make the to unnecessary—you simply cannot insert to into those sentences.

    Following most verbs, however, the infinitive must have to. (In the exercises in these chapters, we will always use infinitives with the to particle.)

    By the way, some grammarians call an infinitive that is missing to a bare infinitive (which is about as risqué as grammarians ever get).

    Like gerunds and participles, infinitives can be used with direct objects, with adverbs, and with other grammatical entities associated with the verb. (See the examples above wherein the race is a direct object.)

    Infinitives can even have subjects, which perform the action of the infinitive:

    I like my children to read every day.
    [My children is the subject of the infinitive; they do the reading. Every day is an adverbial phrase.]

    I like Kelly to enjoy these nightly readings.
    [Kelly is the subject of the infinitive verb; she does the enjoying. These nightly readings is the direct object of to enjoy.]

    I need you to go to the store today.
    [You is the subject; to the store and today are adverbial, modifying the infinitive.]

    I want her to enjoy reading.
    [Her is the subject of the infinitive; reading, a gerund, is the direct object of the infinitive.]

    Notice the last example above: When a pronoun precedes the infinitive as the subject of that infinitive, it will (strangely) be in the objective case:

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    I like them to read every day.
    I need him to go to the store today. I want us to enjoy reading.


    All the infinitives we’ve seen so far are linking or intransitive, or they are transitive and active. But there are other forms.

    A less often used but important variant is the passive infinitive, constructed with the infinitive of be (i.e., to be) followed by the past participle of a main verb (to be recognized, to be known, to be continued).

    In these examples, nominal passive infinitives follow transitive verbs and function as direct objects:

    I’m nervous about my surgery, so I prefer to be driven to the hospital.

    I needed to be helped, but no one was nearby.

    He has longed to be recognized by his colleagues for his contributions.

    He did not expect to be apprehended by the authorities for his misdeeds.

    These passive infinitives are subjects:

    To be recognized for his contributions was his goal. To be apprehended was his fear.

    Passive infinitives can also be predicate nominatives and appositives:

    His goal was to be recognized for his efforts.
    He never achieved his goal, to be recognized for his work.

    And there are also adverbial passive infinitives. In the following examples, the adverbial passives are moveable:

    To be prepared for your finals, study throughout the semester. To be found, the lost hiker built a fire on the hill.

    And in the next examples, the adverbial passive infinitives modify the adjectives preceding them:

    She was ready to be tested. They were eager to be heard.


    The infrequently used perfect infinitive is constructed with the auxiliary have (never has or had) followed by the past participle of a main verb (to have known, to have seen, to have continued), as in these examples of nominal perfect infinitives used as subjects:

    To have known Lincoln would be remarkable.

    To have heard him deliver the Gettysburg Address would be thrilling.

    To have continued performing the play after the announcement was impossible.

    These perfect infinitive phrases are direct objects:

    The police did not expect to have apprehended the criminal by this time.

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    We had hoped to have seen our new nephew by this time. Perfect infinitives can be adverbial, too:

    They are known to have lived here for many years.

    We seldom encounter the passive and perfect infinitives because we usually express the idea in some simpler way: People know that they lived here for many years.

    There are still other, even rarer, forms of the infinitive: They can be perfect progressive (to have been speaking) and passive perfect (to have been shown), but we had hoped to have been finished with this topic by now.


    1. The split infinitive.

    One of the best-known rules of prescriptive grammar says that we must not split infinitives. That is, we must not put an adverb between to and the verb:

    He wants to quickly finish college. He wants to finish college quickly.

    Work hard to gradually improve your writing. Work hard to improve your writing gradually.

    As the second example in each pair demonstrates, it’s usually easy to fix a split infinitive. In some contexts, however, many writers occasionally and judiciously do the splits. As in all good writing, tread carefully.

    2. Go dangle your infinitives elsewhere, bub.

    There can be dangling infinitives, which, like dangling participles, do not clearly or logically work with the rest of the sentence. A passive verb elsewhere in the clause often creates this problem:

    To get to the market today, your chores should be done early. To be heard in this large room, the microphone must be

    Make the independent clause active, and the infinitive phrase

    usually makes better sense:
    To get to the market today, you should do your chores early.

    To be heard in this large room, we must adjust the microphone. Respectable people never dangle their infinitives (at least, not

    in public).


    18a. Identify the function of the nominal infinitives in these sentences:

    1. To become a star was her adolescent dream.
    2. She wants to become a star.
    3. Her dream, to become a star, may never come true. 4. To live is to dream.

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    5. To know him is to love him.
    6. I’d like him to do the project.
    7. He’ll ask her to help.
    8. I’m hoping for them to succeed.

    18b. Locate the nominal infinitive phrases in these sentences and identify their functions:

    1. I need to get some water.

    2. To succeed requires hard work.

    3. To discipline yourself means to make sacrifices. [Hint: means is a linking verb here.]

    4. He explained his goal, to become fluent in German.

    1. He wants to see me in the morning.
    2. It won’t be hard for him to see me then.
    3. Would you like to see me, too?
    4. There’s time for me to see you.

    18c. Identify the functions of the adjectival infinitives in these sentences: What words do they modify?

    1. I have the tools to get the job done.
    2. Time to use the tools is what I need now.

    3. Something to open the tool packages would be handy now. 4. A scissors to open this would be helpful.
    5. I could help if I had some dynamite to open this.
    6. I need a screwdriver to loosen this.

    7. A screwdriver to loosen this would help.

    8. The tool I need, a screwdriver to loosen this, is not here.

    18d. Locate the adjectival infinitives in these sentences and identify the words they modify:

    1. Every day we send urgent messages to complain about the service.
    2. She bought me a carry-on bag to take on my trip.
    3. Someone to guide me on the way would be helpful.
    4. I found someone to guide you.
    5. To relax, he needed a book to interest him.
    6. All she asked for was a book to read, a place in which to stay warm, and something to eat.

    18e. Identify the functions of the adverbial infinitives in these sentences: What words do they modify?

    1. To relax, he sang.

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    2. He read the book to please his daughter.
    3. To please his daughter, he read the book.
    4. To become a fireman, the young man studied and trained. 5. The young man studied and trained to become a fireman. 6. He was eager to become a fireman.
    7. We were happy to help him.
    8. He was careful to speak with me beforehand.

    18f. Yet again, locate the adverbial infinitives here and identify the words they modify:

    1. You need a telescope to be an astronomer. 2. He was ready to be an astronomer.
    3. She was determined to be an astronomer. 4. Eager to play ball, the team waited.

    5. Happy to see her friend, Julie cried. 6. Reluctant to go, the children fidgeted. 7. We were sorry to leave.
    8. She rose to leave.

    18g. Identify all the infinitive phrases, with complements and modifiers, in these sentences and classify them as nominal, adjectival, or adverbial:

    1. That child needs me to look after her.
    2. To succeed, you have to work hard.
    3. I’m looking for a place to sit down.
    4. To be blunt, I will say that I’m angry at you. 5. He is trying to impress his boss.

    6. I am not here to impress anyone.
    7. His reason, to impress his boss, is sufficient. 8. His goal is to impress his boss.
    9. We want her to come to the party.
    10. We hope she’d like to come to the party.

    18h. In the following pairs of sentences, read the first sentence and then, using the first sentence as a clue, analyze the grammar in the underlined verbal phrase in the second sentence.

    An example:

    Randolph likes Italian food. Randolph likes to eat Italian food.

    Because likes is a transitive verb, we can reason that, in the first sentence, Italian food is a direct object. So the infinitive phrase in the second sentence must also be a direct object.

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    1. He likes mystery novels.
    He likes to read mystery novels.

    2. He reads them before school.
    He likes reading them before school.

    3. She is quite ready. She is ready to sing.

    4. She is very happy. She is happy to sing.

    5. The smiling opera star took center stage.
    Singing the aria loudly, the opera star took center stage.

    6. He annoys us.
    His singing arias at 6 a.m. annoys us.

    7. I don’t enjoy opera at 6 a.m.
    I don’t enjoy listening to opera at 6 a.m.

    8. I want music at any time.
    I want to listen to opera at any time.

    18i. Identify the underlined verbals as gerunds, participles, or infinitives. Then identify the function that the verbal performs in each sentence.

    1. He likes to read.
    2. He likes reading novels.
    3. Running quickly, he soon arrived at home.

    1. His singing annoyed us.
    2. Known to the entire community, the mayor is respected.
    3. The silent film star, seen but never recognized, lived in our neighborhood.
    4. He wants to earn money.
    5. He writes to learn.
    6. They were prepared to fight.

    10. To succeed, you must be prepared to work hard.

    1.19: To Boldly Verb Infinitives is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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