Infinitives: the basics
Verbs are often referred to as one of the eight ‘parts of speech’ in English – but they’re also central to your writing, too. Verbs are ‘doing words’, the action of our clauses, phrases and sentences, and they’re modified when we change tense. An infinitive is the base form of a verb.
The eight parts of speech are:
If you’re looking to understand the basic structure of a clause, I recommend you start by reading about subjects, verbs and objects – here, we’ll be doing a basic overview of full infinitives, how they’re constructed and how they’re used.
What is the infinitive?
When we discuss a verb, we often refer to it in its full infinitive form: to + the base form of the verb. For example:
To shut up
The infinitive isn’t actually used as a verb in a sentence. Instead, it’s used as an adjective, noun or adverb. I know – it sounds confusing, but the infinitive can occur in many different places with different functions. Let’s have a look at an few.
As the object of a clause or sentence
We can use the infinitive to refer to or discuss an action without actually doing it. Have a look at this.
Example: I want to run today.
Example: I run on Tuesdays.
In our first example, want is the verb, and to run becomes the object of our sentence, giving more information about our main verb. In the second example, the running actually takes place rather than just being discussed, and so run is our verb. Here’s another example.
Example: I try to laugh at least once a day.
Components: I try (verb to try) to laugh (object) at least once a day.
Example: I laugh at least once a day.
Components: I laugh (verb to laugh) at least once a day.
As the subject of a clause or sentence
If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s work (or really, even if you’re not) you’ll likely have heard the following extract from Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy.
To be, or not to be – that is the question.
To be, here, is used as the subject of the sentence. Other examples might include
Example: To err is human.
Components: To err (subject) is (verb to be) human (object).
Example: To love is to be vulnerable.
Components: To love (subject) is (verb to be) to be vulnerable (object).
As you can see, these examples are a little clunky and archaic. You’re unlikely to hear a group of native English speakers at a social event declaring, ‘To get another beer would be great’. We’re far more likely to use the gerund here – ‘Getting another beer would be great’ – so bear this in mind when you’re writing your dialogue.
Following an adjective
The infinitive can be used following an adjective in order to improve clarity of the meaning of the clause or sentence. The infinitive is usually used with adjectives using ‘enough’ or ‘too’ – have a look at these examples.
Example: It’s too small to read.
Components: It’s too small (adjective) to read.
Example: It’s cooked enough to eat.
Components: It’s cooked enough (adjective) to eat.
Here, our infinitive is the adjunct part of our sentence – you can read about adjuncts and complements to your heart’s content over on the blog.
As an adjective or adjective phrase
Not only can our infinitives follow adjectives, they can become them, too.
Example: We want the cat to love us.
Components: We want the cat (noun) to love (adjective) us.
Example: What a horrible thing to think!
Components: What a horrible thing (noun) to think (adjective)!
You can see that when the infinitive follows a noun, it behaves as an adjective or adjective phrase.
As an adverb
The infinitive can be used to add more information to the verb in our sentence – it acts as an adverb. In this case, infinitives usually answer the question ‘why?’ Have a look at these.
Example: I left university to become a businesswoman.
Components: I left (verb to leave) university to become (adverb) a businesswoman.
Here, ‘to become’ is giving us more information about our verb ‘to leave’. Why did she leave? To become a businesswoman. Of course.
Example: I watched to learn.
Components: I watched (verb to watch) to learn (adverb).
Why did I watch? To learn. Our infinitive here is behaving as an adverb, expanding on the information provided by our verb.
If you’re on the ball, you might have noticed that we haven’t covered bare infinitives here. Bare infinitives are the infinitive without the ‘to’, and they’re used less commonly than full infinitives. To avoid complete overwhelm, I’ll be covering these in another article, so keep your eyes peeled here or follow me on Twitter or Facebook too find out when it’s published.
If you’re looking for editorial input for your draft manuscript, do feel free to get in touch. I love chatting to new clients.
Want further reading? Here are a couple of books to get you going on your grammar journey.
[The links provided below are affiliate links].
Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg