Infinitives are a type of non-finite verbs (or verbals), the other types being gerunds and participles.

We shall look at this particular type of verb from three angles:

  1. morphology – how it looks (i.e. its form)
  2. syntax – what work it does in a sentence (i.e. its function)
  3. semantics – its meaning

How Can You Recognize an Infinitive?

We can recognize it from its form, which is usually as follows:
to eat, to drink, to play, to be, etc (with a 'to' before it).

In some cases the word 'to' is dropped. We speak of such a verb (with the word 'to' dropped) as a bare infinitive.

The bare infinitive is the standard form of an English verb.

What Work Does an Infinitive Do?

If we look at the function, that is, the work an infinitive does in a sentence, >we see the following:

  1. It often acts as both a noun and a verb.
  2. Occasionally, it acts as an adjective or adverb, despite being a verb in meaning.

1. The Infinitive As Noun and Verb

Look at this example:

I like to finish the work quickly.

In this sentence, the phrase 'to finish' does the following jobs:

  • It is the object of the finite verb 'like' - therefore to finish is similar to a noun (because being an object is a noun's job).

  • The phrase 'to finish' has its own object, 'work' - so to finish is a verb (since verbs have objects).

  • The adverb 'quickly' modifies (i.e. tells us something more about) to finish. Since the phrase to finish is modifiable by an adverb, it must be a verb.

We can say that the infinitive, though born in the verb family, does not limit itself to being a verb. It often behaves like a noun when it goes around socializing in the world of sentences!

2. The Infinitive As Adjective or Adverb

In some cases...

  • It behaves even like an adjective, as in the following sentence.

    That was a game to watch!

    In this sentence, to watch tells us something more about the quality of the game (a noun). Describing a noun is the work of an adjective.

  • Sometimes it behaves like an adverb. The sentence below illustrates this.

    Her voice is pleasant to hear.

    The phrase to hear tells us something more about the quality of being pleasant. The word pleasant is an adjective, and words that tell us more about an adjective (adjective modifiers) are traditionally called adverbs.

The Infinitive and Meaning.

If we take the meaning (semantics), then the infinitive could be viewed as a pure, unadulterated form of a verb.

This pure meaning we modify, change, or mutate, by imposing on it such meanings as time, factualness, command, possibility, activity, passivity, etc. The infinitive in itself (semantically) is a pure action word - to do, to write, etc) or a word denoting existence - to be.

After the Infinitive, the other two non-finite verbs are the Gerund and the Participle.

For Further Reading and Study...

English Grammar

New Ezine.
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Related Pages

The Study of Verbals



The Study of Participles

What is a Participle?

Present Participle

Past Participle - Forms

Past Participle - Functions

For the Study of Verbs