English Grammar

Infinitives

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. The basic form of a verb--the form that is usually preceded by the particle to-- is called an infinitive. All infinitives have tense, and transitive infinitives have voice (present active, to find; present passive, to be found; present-perfect active, to have found; and present-perfect passive, to have been found) as well as progressivity (to be finding, to have been finding); however, they do not have person and number. Infinitives can function as adverbs (they are playing to win), as adjectives (you have nothing to do), and as nouns (who doesnít want to succeed?).

2. An infinitive with its modifiers and objects is called an infinitive phrase. Like simple infinitives, infinitive phrases can be used as adverbs (we drove fifty miles to see the performance), adjectives (I am looking for something to read on vacation), or nouns (the children are learning to write correctly). When used as nouns, infinitives can be subjects, direct objects, predicate nominatives, appositives, objects of prepositions, and objective complements. Here are several sentences in which infinitives and infinitive phrases are used . . .

. . . as subjects:

- To die is our common destiny.

- To fly is fun for a while.

- To stand up for the rights of the underprivileged is admirable.

- To drive a car properly requires practice and a respect for the rights of others.

. . . as direct objects:

- Do you want to rest?

- Children like to run and play.

- She tried to read a good book.

- Would you prefer to go to a movie today or to eat out tomorrow?

. . . as predicate nominatives:

- Their goal will be to survive.

- Her job was to hire the best people available.

- To strive is to succeed.

. . . as appositives:

- It was not my idea to leave early.

- Sometimes it is necessary to stand and fight.

. . . as objects of the prepositions except and but:

- Nothing remained except to fold our tents and go home.

- The waiter did everything but pay the bill. (an infinitive without to)

- Do you really have nothing to do except disturb others? (another "to-less" infinitive)

. . . as objective complements (the infinitive is often "to-less"):

- She made them stay after school.

- He heard someone come in the back door.

- We watched the red sun sink below the horizon.

Susan Emolyn Harman maintains that to be honest is an objective complement in the sentence I believe him to be honest. It seems to me that him to be honest is better analyzed as an objective-case subject with a verb in the infinitive form (a construction akin to the subject accusative with infinitive in Latin). The sentence can be restated as I believe that he is honest, that is, with an indirect statement (underlined), which is precisely the kind of construction that is rendered as a subject accusative with infinitive in Latin.

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3. The modal auxiliary verbs may, might, can, could, should, and must are so closely tied to their complements (the verbs that complete them) that the two (modal auxiliary and complement) are considered single verb forms (may arrive, can help, should wait, must have seen, etc.) and are so diagrammed.  Other verbs achieve this same closeness with their complements (ought to hurry, am going to meet, used to watch, etc.). In such a construction, the infinitive that complements the introductory word, is usually preceded by the particle to and is called a complementary infinitive.

- Students have to stay in their homerooms until the bell rings.

- Students ought to stay in their homerooms until the bell rings.

- Students are to stay in their homerooms until the bell rings.

- Students are going to stay in their homerooms until the bell rings.

- Students used to stay in their homerooms until the bell rang.

Donít confuse complementary infinitives with direct objects. In general, sentences that contain transitive verbs (i.e., verbs that take direct objects) are able to be restated in the passive voice. Even though have and used can take direct objects, they canít in the above sentences because their meanings there do not allow them to be used passively. If you try to express these sentences in the passive voice, you get nonsense. Example: To stay in homerooms until the bell rings is had by students. Nonsense, right?

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4. Infinitives and infinitive phrases used as predicate adjectives may be preceded by forms of the verb to be, but they can also follow other linking verbs, for example, seem, appear, and certain passive verbs. Here are some examples of infinitive phrases that function as predicate adjectives:

- He seemed to have all his ducks in a row.

- One contestant appears to lack self-confidence.

- The Royal Library of Alexandria is thought to have contained more than 500,000 books.

- This is said to be the best Vietnamese restaurant in town.

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5. In a peculiar construction, for is used as an expletive to introduce an infinitive phrase used as (1) a subject, (2) a direct object, (3) a predicate nominative, or (4) an appositive. Such infinitive phrases have subjects.

- (1) For us to deny our common humanity would be harmful to society. (subject of infinitive: us)

- (2) The old man does not like for others to do his work for him. (subject of infinitive: others)

- (3) The plan was for him to read the script first. (subject of infinitive: him)

- (4) It is essential to the success of the company for all employees to contribute their time and talents. (subject of infinitive: employees)

An infinitive phrase can also be used as the object of the preposition for: The salespeople were itching for the last customers to leave the store. The boss bought a second car for the staff to use. (subjects of infinitives: customers and staff)

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6. Infinitives and infinitive phrases can be used as independent expressions, as they are in the following sentences:

- To tell the truth, Iíve never caught a really big fish in my life.

- Kay made a good impression, to say the least.

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7. Do you split infinitives? You probably do if you donít know what a split infinitive is. H. W. Fowler divides the English-speaking world, not without humor, into five groups: (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish.

What is a split infinitive? Boldly assuming that you donít belong to Fowlerís first group, Iíll answer. An infinitive is split if there is a word or words between the particle to and the remainder of the infinitive (to-less infinitives cannot be split). To seriously discuss is a split infinitive. To be seriously discussing is not. To qualify as a split infinitive, the extraneous word or words must come immediately after to.

With one insignificant exception, Shakespeare did not split infinitives, and none is found in the King James version of the Bible, universally lauded for its linguistic excellence. Split infinitives became more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today they are said to be in common usage, due no doubt in part to a widespread ignorance of grammar.

In an effort to ascertain the prevalence of split infinitives in 21st-century America, I turned again to The Courier-Journal, published daily in Louisville, Kentucky. In the six editorial pages that I examined, I found many infinitives, only several of which were modified by adverbs. And of these infinitives, only one was split by an adverbial modifier:

- At the same time, there are some folks ranting and raving about the need to virtually recreate the Wild, Wild West by giving guns to anyone who can answer a few standard questions. (Karyl Ferman, H3, April 22, 2007)

I donít know about you, but I cannot think of a better place for virtually than where it is: smack dab in the middle of an infinitive. If current English usage permits the occasional use of a split infinitive, then surely this one is acceptable.

I also found an infinitive whose split occurs between be and the participial component of the infinitive; as implied above, it is not a split infinitive:

- Indeed, under the three-state logic of the ERA sponsors, the amendment making the District of Columbia a state would need only a few more states to be retroactively declared ratified. (Jonathan Turley, H5, April 22, 2007)

To retroactively be declared is a split infinitive. To be retroactively declared is not. Here is a similar sentence of my own creation:

- The head of the tolerance committee expects to be unjustifiably labeled intolerant.

This sentence does not contain a split infinitive. If someone with an incomplete knowledge of split infinitives thought it was, he or she might change the wording to The head of the tolerance committee expects unjustifiably to be labeled intolerant. In the process, a perfectly clear sentence would be made ambiguous, for now the reader does not know if the adverb unjustifiably modifies expects or to be labeled. And placing unjustifiably after labeled, as in The head of the tolerance committee expects to be labeled unjustifiably intolerant, only relocates the source of ambiguity, for now the reader is forced to choose between labeled unjustifiably and unjustifiably intolerant.

But letís say we really do have a split infinitive, as in the following sentence:

- Philosophers struggle to irrefutably resolve troublesome issues related to the existence of evil in the world.

If you are a person who knows what split infinitives are and condemns them, you will try relocating the offending word, the adverb (itís almost always an adverb) irrefutably. Philosophers struggle irrefutably to resolve troublesome issues related to the existence of evil in the world yields only ambiguity, as does Philosophers struggle to resolve irrefutably troublesome issues related to the existence of evil in the world. Whatís a poor fellow to do? Saving irrefutably for the end of the sentence seems awkward at best. Still thereís always a way out: start over and express the same thought differently. We could say, for example, Philosophers struggle to find an irrefutable resolution to troublesome issues related to the existence of evil in the world. This is at least as good as the original sentence, donít you think? But letís say you donít think so; you like the original sentence better. Do you have to scrap it because it contains a split infinitive? Nowadays the answer of most grammarians is no. Itís your choice.

Are there any split infinitives that should be eschewed? Yes, it turns out there are some: those that contain more than one word between the particle to and the verb. Here is an example:

- She admonished the couple to thoughtfully and patiently discuss their differences.

The infinitive to discuss is split by the compound adverb thoughtfully and patiently. Thatís two words too many. In this case a revision is obvious: She admonished the couple to discuss their differences thoughtfully and patiently.

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8. You may have heard of a dangling participle, but have you heard of a dangling infinitive? In general, this error is not so egregious that it precludes or impedes understanding. An infinitive (or an infinitive phrase) dangles when, functioning as a modifier of the verb, it has no subject (agent), either expressed or unambiguously implied. Here are several sentences with dangling infinitives:

(A) To even consider a Caribbean cruise, a travel agent recommended austere measures

(B) To appease disgruntled fishermen, thousands of small bass and crappies are now swimming in the lake.

(C) All members must attend to ascertain the general level of interest in the project.

In Sentence A, the infinitive phrase to even consider a Caribbean cruise (did you notice that the infinitive is split?) modifies the verb recommended whose subject is travel agent. But it is not the travel agent who might consider a Caribbean cruise. Here are some possible revisions:

- To even consider a Caribbean cruise, the couple ought to adopt austere measures..

- Even to consider a Caribbean cruise requires the adoption of austere measures. (In this sentence, the infinitive phrase functions as a noun, not a modifier of the verb; consequently, it does not need a subject.)

- The mere consideration of a Caribbean cruise mandates the adoption of austere measures. (The infinitive phrase is replaced by a noun.)

Because of the dangling infinitive phrase, Sentence B is unintentionally funny (well, I must confess I tried to make it "unintentionally" funny). The thousands of fish couldnít appease anyone. The sentence must be rephrased. Here are three possibilities:

- To appease disgruntled fishermen, the board of directors has added thousands of small bass and crappies to the lake.

- The addition of thousands of small bass and crappies to the lake was an attempt to appease disgruntled fishermen. (The infinitive phrase in this revision is an adjectival modifier; it modifies the noun attempt.)

- The appeasement of disgruntled fisherman underlay the addition of thousands of small bass and crappies to the lake. (The infinitive phrase is replaced by a noun.)

In Sentence C, the members are not ascertaining the general level of interest; someone else is. Even though it doesnít occupy the first position in the sentence, the infinitive phrase dangles: it modifies the verb and it has no logical subject. And it doesnít help if in order to is used instead of to; since in order to is a phrasal expression of to, the infinitive phrase still modifies the verb. Here are two possible revisions:

- To ascertain the general level of interest in the project, the committee will ask all members to attend.

- All members must attend so that the committee can ascertain the general level of interest in the project.

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not the doer of the action (the agent). What do you think of this sentence?

- To earn money, students are being offered summer jobs. The logical subject of the infinitive phrase is the unexpressed agent, not the subject of the sentence, students. A more successful sentence would be To encourage student to earn money, they are being offered summer jobs.

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9. Even though in order to is the phrasal equivalent of to, there are times when one has to use in order to instead of to in order to achieve clarity. Consider these two sentences:

- The principal disclosed her desire to encourage honesty among the faculty.

- The principal disclosed her desire in order to encourage honesty among the faculty.

The first infinitive phrase is adjectival, the second adverbial.

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10. For sentence variety, use infinitives and infinitive phrases as nouns (subjects, direct objects, objective complements, predicate nominatives, appositives), as adjectives (attributive and predicate), as adverbs (modifiers of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs), and as complementary infinitives. You may want to challenge yourself to write a single sentence using infinitives in as many different ways as possible.

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11. Use try to instead of try and in formal communication. The illogic of try and becomes clear when one tries to use it in the past tense: I tried and saw if I could reach her. The two verbs are not parallel.

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12. It is considered bad form to use a compound expression consisting of the preposition to and its object as one element and a to-infinitive as another. Example:

- On the same day, Gloria was invited to a party at Amelieís house and to go bowling with Johanna. Correction: On the same day, Gloria was invited to attend a party at Amelieís house and to go bowling with Johanna.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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