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Concourse 2

The infinitive: the essentials


Why is it called the infinitive?

The infinitive in English is known as non-finite.  That means that you can't tell by looking at it whether it refers to me, you, lots of people, the past, the present or the future.  Compare, for example, the verbs in
    He wants to make a cake.
The verb wants has an -s ending here and that tells us that it refers to a singular person, it refers to the third person (it can't refer to me or you) and it is present tense.  If we change the form of this verb, we change its function:
    He wanted to make a cake
    They want to make a cake

The verb make does not tell us any of these things.  It will not change if I replace he with you or wants with wanted or want.


Why is it important?

English uses the infinitive in lots of different ways and the important ones are considered here.
Many languages operate differently and some, such as Greek, do not have an infinitive at all.  Learners have some difficulty with the infinitive and we get errors such as:


2 doors

Two sorts of the infinitive

the bare infinitive
this form of the infinitive is sometimes called the zero infinitive and occurs in these examples:
    What he did was make a terrible mess.
    I can
see it.
    I saw him
do it.
the to-infinitive
this occurs more frequently.  For example:
    I want to go home.
    She tried to help.
    To go to America has been his dream.
    I need a hammer to break it open.
    It is vital to understand the form.
    I had too much work to do.
    Can you tell me how to get to the meeting?


The bare infinitive

after modal auxiliary verbs

The bare infinitive is the most common verb form after modal auxiliary verbs in English.  There is a guide to modal auxiliary verbs on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
The modal auxiliary verbs followed by the bare infinitive with examples are:

had better
You can help
She couldn't help
I had better go
We may arrive late
John might
be there
I must
We shall not do it
I should
think so
They will
I would enjoy that

Learners have a good deal of trouble with modal auxiliary verbs in English, not least because many of them perform more than one function.  One central problem is that they have slightly peculiar structures so we get errors such as:

The most important issue here is that these auxiliary modal auxiliary verbs cannot be followed by the to-infinitive.  Learners need lots of practice to get it right.

after verbs of perception

Here are some examples of what's meant here:

We can, of course, also use another non-finite verb with these examples such as
    I saw him arriving
    I listened to her playing
However, the sense changes slightly to emphasise that an action was in progress rather than completed.

Learners will frequently be tempted to use the wrong form with these verbs and produce, e.g.,
    *I saw him arrived
    *I heard it to break

with make and let

For example,

The difficulty for learners with these two verbs is that other verbs which mean pretty much the same thing take the infinitive with to.
For example:
    I obliged him to come
    I forced him to tell me
    I allowed him to go
    We were permitted to go in
The result, naturally, is that learners will often produce things like:
    *I made him to come
    *She let him to see

after why

The question word why is very often followed by the bare infinitive.

Usually, of course, why is followed by question forms such as in
    Why do you need it?
    Why is the door open?
etc.  It can also frequently be used with negative questions as in:
    Why don't we see it?
    Why can't you come?
Understandably, this causes problems and learners may produce, e.g.:
    *Why not to go?
    *Why shouldn't he to come?
    *Why you go now?
etc. because these sorts of constructions may be the way their languages do things.


The to-infinitive

verbs of expectation, purpose and volition

Some verbs, especially those which refer in some way to the future rather than to past experience, are followed by the to-infinitive.  Here are some examples:

On the other hand, verbs which are based on our experience or refer to past events and situations more commonly take an -ing form verb (also called a gerund in this case):
    I dislike standing in queues
    I remembered meeting her
    She loves reading
    John admitted breaking it
Understandably, and predictably, this is not an easy area for learners (not least because some teachers assume the forms are random) so we get errors such as
    *I want having it
    *I remembered to meet him the week before
    *She agreed going
    *She agreed go
    *I expect arriving
There's a guide to this area on this site, linked in the list at the end.

The idea of purpose is sometimes treated separately, even being given its own title of 'the infinitive of purpose', but it falls into this category.
It is less simple to see that to is sometimes just an abbreviation of in order to.  This confuses.  Compare for example:

If there is a possibility of ambiguity, most speakers will use the in order to formulation.


The verb tell is followed by the to-infinitive:
    I told her to wait
    She told me to leave
    Please tell them to hurry.
Compare make above.
The issue with the verb tell is that it carries three meanings:

  1. It has the meaning of impart information as in, e.g.:
        I told him all about the journey
        She told me her name
    In this sense, the verb is not usually followed by an infinitive but is often followed by a phrase or a noun acting as the object of the verb tell.
    In this case, too, the verb takes two objects.
  2. It has an associated meaning of explain as in, e.g.:
        I told him why I was late
        She told me how to get to the station

    In this sense, the word follows the pattern of other verbs + question words (see below).
  3. It carries the meaning of order / command as in, e.g.:
        She told him to wait
        They told me to stop
    In this sense only, the verb is followed by an infinitive with to.  The infinitive is the structure of choice because the telling precedes the action and so the clause looks forward in time (the telling comes before the action).

after adjectives

Many adjectives are routinely followed by the to-infinitive.  Frequently, these take the form of using a dummy subject (it) to stand for the action or event.  The adjectives are also very often those which express an opinion about something.

Just as we can use most adjectives before or following the noun as in, for example:


it is also possible, but rarer and usually a little formal, to make the to-infinitive the subject of the sentence as in, e.g.,


As you might expect, learners make errors.

after some modal auxiliary verbs

There's a bit of an argument about whether we should analyse a structure like
    I ought to write to my mother
as containing ought plus the to-infinitive or ought to plus the bare infinitive.  Whichever way it is analysed, the following modal and semi-modal auxiliary verbs come with to or are followed by the to-infinitive:

be able
They are able to help
I have to confess
She didn't dare to tell me
I need to go
We ought to arrive on time
I used
to enjoy tennis

with adverbials using too and enough

These are common constructions:

The confusion between to and too is an obvious issue but learners will also make errors such as
    *I had enough spend
    *She had too much work for leaving early

with how, where, when, what (but not why) and the verbs ask, enquire, explain, clarify, describe, see, recognise, identify, know, show, demonstrate, understand, realise

Other question words are followed by the to-infinitive with these verbs.  See why above as the exception with the bare infinitive.  See also tell, above.

With exposure and a bit of practice, most learners have little trouble with this area.  There is a temptation to avoid the structures, however, and produce clumsy sentences such as:

or even errors such as:

Related guides
the infinitive this is the link to the in-service guide for this area
modal auxiliary verbs for an essential guide to modal auxiliary verbs
gerunds and infinitives an essential guide to this verb form with some contrast with the to-infinitive
finite and non-finite forms for a much more technical guide to the infinitive and more in the in-service section

There's a short test to see if you can remember and recognise the uses of the infinitive.