Infinitives (Part One)

Infinities are the third and final type of English verbals. Like gerunds and participles, the other types of verbals, infinites are made from verbs but function as other parts of speech. They inherently convey a sense of action or a state of being. Infinitives are the most versatile of all the verbal types. They can function as nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. Because infinitives can fulfill so many roles, we’re going to look at them in two parts. Today, we’ll look at the basics. Next time, we’ll cover how infinitives relate to verbs and common problems implementing them.


How Infinitives Work

Infinitives are made from the word “to” plus the simplest (stem) form of a verb. They are easy to spot because of their to + verb structure. However, figuring out which part of speech an infinitive is functioning as can be more difficult. Infinitives can function as a subject, direct object, subject complement, adjective, or adverb in a sentence. Let’s look at each in turn.


Infinitive as the subject of a sentence:

To study is the only thing that will ensure he passes the test.

To focus was difficult when he had slept so little.


As the direct object:

Jim wanted to sleep.

The team expected to lose.


As the subject complement:

Her passion was to run.

His weakness is to procrastinate.


As an adverb:

We must error to improve.

He cannot wait to leave.


As an adjective:

She never brings her homework to study

He always finds a recipe to cook.


Infinitive Phrases

Infinitive phrases consist of infinitives and modifiers and/or pronouns or noun phrases that function as the actors (see below), direct objects, indirect objects, or complements of the action implied by the infinitive. What all this basically means is that an infinitive phrase has its own sort of abridged “sentence structure” within the sentence as whole.


The one thing an infinitive phrase cannot have its own finite verb; it would no longer be an infinitive phrase if it did. Their inability to take finite verbs also means that infinitive phrases cannot have true grammatical subjects. Instead, infinitive phrases sometimes include an “actor,” a sort of “not quite” subject that is responsible for the action or state of being expressed by the infinitive. We’ll talk about what makes an infinitive phrase require an actor in part two. For now, we’ll close out part one with some infinitive phrase examples. The words comprising the infinitive phrases appear in bold text.


Infinitive phrase as the direct object:

She planned­ to work late.

Kevin promised to give his boss an update.


Infinitive phrase as an adjective:

Jennifer has a report to finish after dinner.

Megan had a piano solo to practice before the concert.

Infinitive phrase as an adverb:

Susan braved the winter storm to walk to the grocery store.

Angela baked her famous brownies to bring to the company picnic.