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Infinitive - The "to" Verb

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Academic tomes might go on for pages defining the meaning of the infinitive form of a verb. I, on the other hand, have developed a definition requiring only a single sentence:

The infinitive form of a verb is the one you would ordinarily look up in the dictionary.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t look up seen in the dictionary. Instead, you would look up see. That’s the infinitive. You wouldn’t look up written in the dictionary. You would look up write. That’s the infinitive. You wouldn’t look up making, you would look up make. That’s the infinitive. See? It works. Thus, for any verb, you know the infinitive form: It’s the word you would ordinarily look up in the dictionary.

Now what’s an infinitive?

This always stumped me back in Miss Hamrick’s class. I kept getting hung up on notions of infinity. Under this cosmic view, verbs led to nowhere, or at least to some other planet far, far away. Certainly beyond our solar system. The word infinitive just didn’t seem to help.

Then came the term finite verb. It took me quite some time to realize that a finite verb is the opposite of an infinitive verb. Seems to me, they should make the terms more symmetrical. Either infinitive should be infinite or finite should be, uh, finitive.

Many, many years after those glorious days in Miss Hamrick’s English class, it all began to come together. The true notion of infinitive and finite verbs finally jelled.

The infinitive has no reference in time (tense), reveals nothing about the agent of the verb-like activity (person), says not a word about how many people are engaging in that verb-like activity (number), and says nothing about the nature of the statement (mood).

Thus, when I write the infinitive phrase to win the game, you have no idea about whether this game took place in the past, is going on right now, or will take place in the future. You don’t know who’s winning the game. You don’t know how many people are playing the game. It could be a football game with 22 people playing, or it could be a game of solitaire.

Thus, an infinitive verb has no finite state of time, people, or number of people.

Later on in this section, when we explore the verb in more detail, we will find out that infinitives perform a very important role in our language: They allow us to write infinitive phrases, as in to have, to hold, to love, to honor, to cherish . . . to cite the wedding vows. And we’ll see that these infinitive phrases can act as nouns (He wanted to win the game), as adjectives (The best way to go avoids the traffic jam), or as adverbs (The homeowner brandished his gun to frighten the intruder).

You’ll also learn that infinitive phrases always show up in the styles of powerful writers. You’ll also learn that, yes, you can split infinitives. Even Miss Hamrick would approve.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.


Previous: Four Principal Parts or Forms of Verbs

Next: Finite Verb - Tense, Person, Number, Mood

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