From Academic Kids

In grammar, the infinitive is the form of a verb that has no inflection to indicate person, number, mood or tense. It is called the "infinitive" because the verb is usually not made "finite", or limited by inflection. In some languages, however, there are inflected forms of the infinitive denoting attributes such as tense, person and number. It happens for example in Portuguese. There are languages that do not have infinitives at all, for example Arabic, Bulgarian and Modern Greek.

In foreign language courses, the present simple tense of the infinitive is often referred to as the "dictionary form", as this is the basic form of a verb which is usually presented in dictionaries.




By far the most common form of an infinitive in English language is with the particle "to", such as in "to walk", "to cry", "to eat", "to fear". This is known as the to-infinitive. William Shakespeare used a number of infinitives of this form in one of his most famous soliloquies, the "Soliloquy of Hamlet"

  • To be or not to be ...
  • To sleep, perchance to dream ...

Verbs that are commonly followed by a to-infinitive include: agree, aim, appear, apply, arrange*, ask*, beg*, choose*, consent, decide, demand, desire, expect*, fail, guarantee, hope, intend*, long, negotiate, plan, plead, pledge, prefer*, pretend, resolve, seek, swear, threaten, undertake, volunteer, want*, wish*.

For example:

  • I arranged to stay the night.
  • We intend to go skiing this weekend.
  • I swear to honour you.
  • He sought to notify them of this new occurrence.

Those which are followed by an object and a to-infinitive include (in addition to those marked with an asterisk above): advise, allow, challenge, command, compel, condemn, enable, encourage, expect, forbid, force, help, induce, induce, inspire, instruct, invite, oblige, order, permit, persuade, prefer, program, remind, teach, tell, train, urge, warn.

For example:

  • The heavy advertising on hoardings induced me to purchase this new appliance. (induce (in the preterite) + object (me) + to-infinitive (to purchase))
  • I was compelled to do my homework.
  • He helped me (to) perform well at this tournament.
  • She told her to shut up.

Some verbs are followed by for + object + to-infinitive. These verbs normally express wanting, and cannot be followed by an object and an infinitive alone (though an infinitive alone may work). These verbs include apply, arrange, ask, call, clamour, long, opt, plead, press, vote, wait, wish, yearn.

For example:

  • I have arranged for the neighbour to water the plants.
  • I pleaded for him to accompany me to the theatre.

Bare infinitive

A less common form of the infinitive is with certain auxiliary verbs, such as "do", "will"/"would", "shall"/"should", "may"/"might", "must", and sometimes "ought". An example can again be found in the speech by Hamlet referenced above; "What dreams may come ...?". Other excludes include "we might win", "I did not go", "he should leave", "we must say it", "I will leave".

A third case of infinitive drops the preposition altogether. This is possible when the infinitive form is used in conjunction with a specific set of verbs - these include "feel", "hear", "help", "let", "make" (in the active), "see", and "watch", and dare and need in negative sentences. Examples include:

  • I felt the earth move. ("move" is the infinitive)
  • We heard the bell toll. ("toll" is the infinitive)
  • She helped me (to) understand. ("understand" is the infinitive)
  • I let him win. ("win" is the infinitive)
  • I didn't dare (to) say what I really thought. ("say" is the infinitive)
  • I dare say you've come home just a moment ago. ("say" is the infinitive)
  • Need you be so offensive? ("be" is the infinitive)

This is sometimes called the bare infinitive.

Other infinitives

In addition to the to-infinitive and the bare infinitive, English also knows other types of infinitive.

Verbs followed by to be

This so called passive infinitive is used after certain verbs, especially reporting verbs, in between which an object stands. Verbs commonly followed by the passive infinitive are: allege, assume, believe, consider, estimate, fail, feel, imagine, instruct, know, prove, reckon, report, rumour, say, think, understand, want.

For example:

  • The new party failed to be elected in at last Sunday's election.
  • I once wanted to be a constable, but have ended up as a doctor.
  • She is said to be a wonderful dancer.
  • We estimate our expenses to be higher than anticipated.
  • You are rumoured to be rather difficult at times.

The perfect infinitive

With reporting verbs, as well as appear, claim, happen, pretend, prove, seem, tend, and so on, the Perfect infinitive (to + have + past participle) is used to emphasise one action's occurring before another.

For example:

  • You seem to have lost weight.
  • He was said to have been granted a scholarship.

This structure can usually be rewritten with a preparatory it + defining relative (that) clause and a perfect tense. For instance: It seems that you have lost weight. It was said that he had been granted a scholarship.

Tenses of the infinitive

Infinitives in English exist in many tenses. Here is a table showing these different tenses for the verb to cook.

Active Passive
Present simple (to) cook (to) be cooked
Present continuous (to) be cooking /
Present perfect simple (to) have cooked (to) have been cooked
Present perfect continuous (to) have been cooking /

See also gerund.

Germanic languages

The original Germanic suffix of the infinitive was -an, with verbs derived from other words ending in -jan or -janan. In German it is -en ("sagen"), with -eln or -ern endings on a few words based on -l or -r roots ("segeln", "ndern"); the use of zu with infinitives is less frequent than to in English. They can function as nouns in the -en form with a capitalized beginning letter, in which case they are of neuter gender ("das Essen" means the gerund "eating"). In Dutch infinitives also end in -en ("zeggen" - to say), sometimes used with 'te' similar to English to, e.g. "Het is niet moeilijk te begrijpen" -> "It is not difficult to understand". In Scandinavian languages the n has dropped out and it is -e or -a.

Romance languages

Romance infinitives can be used in much the same way as the infinitive is used in English, and they can also sometimes function as masculine nouns. In Spanish and Portuguese, infinitives mostly end in -ar, -er, or -ir. A similar phenomenon also exists in French: infinitives of verbs have the suffixes -er, -ir, -re or -oir. Italian follows a similar pattern, with its infinitives ending in -are, -ere, -ire or -urre.

Formation of the infinitive in Romance languages reflects that of their ancestor, Latin, in which a significant majority of verbs had an infinitive ending with -re (with a varying vowel, called the thematical preceding it).

Portuguese (and its sister language, Galician) is the only Indo-European language with a personal infinitive, which helps to make infinitive clauses very common. English finite sentences as so that you/she/we have/has/have... would be translated to para poderes/ela poder/podermos... (the subject is dropped very often). Portuguese personal infinitive has only two proper tenses (present and perfect), but other tenses are replaced by periphrastic structures. For instance, although you sing/sang/will sing could be translated to apesar de cantares/teres cantado/ires cantar.

Slavic languages

The infinitive in Russian usually ends in -t' (ть) preceded by a thematic vowel; some verbs have a stem ending in a consonant and change the t to ch, such as *могть -> мочь "can". Some other Slavic languages have the infinitive typically ending in .

Hebrew language

Hebrew has two infinitives, the infinitive absolute and the infinitive construct. The infinitive construct is used after prepositions and is inflected with pronominal endings to indicate its subject or object: bikhtōbh hassōphēr "when the scribe wrote", ahare lekhtō "after his going". When the infinitive construct is preceded by ל (lə-, li-, lā-) "to", it is identical in its meaning to the English to-infinitive, and this is its most frequent use in Modern Hebrew. The infinitive absolute is used to add emphasis or certainty to the verb, as in מות ימות mōth yāmūth "he shall indeed die". This usage is commonplace in Biblical Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew it is restricted to high-flown literary works.

Note, however, that the to-infinitive of Hebrew is not the dictionary form; that is the third person singular past tense.

Finnish language

The first infinitive is derived from the root word with adding -(t)A or -(tt)AA, with the accompanying consonant gradation and vowel harmony change. As such, it is inconvenient for dictionary use, because the imperative would be closer to the root word. Nevertheless, dictionaries use the infinitive. For example, in juokse! (run!) the -kse- is gradated to -s-, and -ta is added: juosta (to run).

There are four other infinitives, which create a noun-, or adverb-like word from the verb. For example, the third infinitive is -ma/-m, which creates an adjective-like word like "written" from "write": kirjoita- becomes kirjoittama.

Translation to languages without an infinitive

In languages without an infinitive, the infinitive is translated either as a that-clause or as a verbal noun. For example, in Literary Arabic the phrase "I want to write a book" is translated as either urīdu an aktuba kitāban (literally "I want that I should write a book", with a verb in the subjunctive) or urīdu kitābata kitābin (literally "I want the writing of a book", with the masdar or verbal noun), and in Demotic Arabic biddi aktob iktāb (subordinate clause with verb in subjunctive). Similarly, the modern Greek for "I want to write", as opposed to the ancient Greek θέλω γραφεῖν with the infinitive, is θέλω να γράψω, which is literally "I want that I should write".

See also:

eo:Infinitivo nl:Infinitief ja:不定詞 pl:Bezokolicznik ru:Инфинитив


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