The Simple Guide to Infinitives
You make use of different parts of speech ever day. You might not think about the grammar that you are using, but it is there. But what happens if you would like to know more about grammar, or you are planning to teach English to foreigners and have to know. Suddenly you may not feel so at home with your home language as what you thought â€“ but no need to worry, there is no need to be a walking textbook. This simple guide will give you a reminder of the deeper workings of the language that you use every day. Whether it's for yourself or to teach to someone else, the simple guide will tell you all you need to know about infinitives.
What is an infinitive?
An infinitive is a type of verb that, like the gerund, can be used as an object or subject of the sentence. It can function as a noun, an adjective and an adverb. It is not then identified by its function, but by its appearance. An infinitive is the word "to" + the base form of a verb e.g.
To run; to fetch; to hide; to gather; to play
The infinitive as an adjective
An infinitive that functions as an adjective can describe or give more information on a noun, a pronoun or an entire phrase e.g.
This is the best time to mow the lawn. (The infinitive "to mow" describes the noun "time" â€“ it gives more information on the "time" being referred to)
I went to the store to buy something to wear. (The infinitive "to wear" describes the pronoun "something" â€“ it gives more information about the "something" being referred to)
You are too young to stay out late. (The infinitive "to stay" describes the phrase "you are too young" â€“ it gives more information about why the recipient is too young)
The infinitive as an adverb
An adverb describes or gives more information on a verb e.g.
We ran as fast as we could to escape the storm. (The infinitive "to escape" gives more information on the verb "ran" â€“ it explains why they were running as fast as they could)
To get there first, we left early. (The infinitive "to get" gives more information on the verb "left" â€“ it explains why they left early)
One way of testing if an infinitive is an infinitive or an adjective is to place the words "in order to" before the infinitive in the sentence. If the sentence still makes sense, it is an adverb and not an adjective e.g.
In order to get there first, we left early. (The sentence still makes sense, so the infinitive "to get" functions as an adverb)
It is too early in order to leave. (The sentence does not make sense, the infinitive "to leave" functions as an adjective in this case).
Note: The above examples identify the infinitive, but whole phrases are used to explain the sentence. In the example, "to get" is part of an infinitive phrase ("to get there first"). This phrase explains the verb "left" which is part of the phrase "we left early" - the whole phrase is actually being explained. It is enough to just identify the actual infinitive and verb as above, but the whole phrase that they are a part of is used to determine the meaning of the sentence (and the function of the infinitive). This is true for all types of infinitives.
The infinitive as a noun
An infinitive that functions as a noun acts as the subject or object of a sentence.
Her greatest dream is to be a dancer. (The infinitive "to be" functions as a noun as it is part of the noun phrase "to be a dancer" â€“ "His greatest dream" is the subject, "is" is the verb and "to be a dancer is the object" of the sentence )
I once tried to make cake. (The infinitive "to make" functions as a noun as it is part of the noun phrase "to make cake" â€“ "I" is the subject, "tried" is the verb and "to make cake" is the object of the sentence)
To fly a plane is an amazing feeling. (The infinitive "to fly" functions as a noun as it is part of the noun phrase "to fly a plane" â€“ "To fly a plane" is the subject, "is" is the verb and "an amazing feeling" is the object of the sentence)
Infinitives without "to"
Some infinitives look like normal base forms of verbs, as they do not require the word "to". These are referred to as bare infinitives.
Opinions on bare infinitives differ, but a simple explanation of how to spot a bare infinitive is this: When the base form of a verb is used directly after the object of a sentence, it is a bare infinitive e.g.
I saw him run away.
Just look at that car go!
You should make him apologise.
Can you help me make the beds?
Each of the above examples describe the phrases that come before them â€“ they are therefore infinitives and not normal verbs.