Infinitives are verbals made from “to” plus the stem form of a verb. They can function as nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. Last time we looked at the basics of infinitives and infinitive phrases. This time we’ll find out what “actors” are and how to use them. We’ll also discuss the most common error made when using infinitives, the infamous split infinitive.
When some verbs take an infinitive phrase as a direct object, they require an “actor” for the action that the infinitive phrase implies. You can think of an actor as the informal (non-grammatical) “subject” of an infinitive phrase.
You must always include an actor when an infinitive phrase is the direct object of one of the following verbs: allow, advise, appoint, convince, encourage, force, hire, incite, implore, instruct, invite, order, permit, remind, teach, and tell.
The role of actors is easiest to explain with examples. The actor will be in bold print this time, rather than the infinitive. Note that an actor must immediately follow the main verb of the sentence.
She encouraged me to study regularly for the test.
The court appointed an attorney to represent the estate.
Bob hired Martha to help with the seasonal rush.
Richard convinced the library to wave the late fee.
Do not include an actor when the infinitive is the direct object of one of these verbs: agree, begin, continue, decide, fail, hesitate, hope, intend, learn, neglect, offer, plan, prefer, pretend, promise, refuse, remember, start, and try. Look at these examples, and pay special attention to the fact the “to” of the infinitive immediately follows the main verb.
He pretended to care.
He refuses to study.
Emily prefers to have Sundays off.
Dan promised to work late.
These verbs can take or leave an actor: ask, expect, like, need, and want. Here are two pairs of examples with and without an actor. The optional actor is in bold text.
Mark needs to see the map.
Mark needs his driver to see the map.
She wanted to arrive early.
She wanted him to arrive early.
Infinitives vs. Prepositional Phrases
Don’t confuse infinitives with prepositional phrases, which also begin with “to.” Remember, infinitives are verbals made of “to” plus a verb. Prepositional phrases consist of “to,” a (pro)noun, and any applicable modifiers.
to fly, to draw, to win, to ride, to earn
to the company, to her address, to them, to the beach
A split infinite occurs when a word or phrase interrupts the “to” and verb of the infinitive.
Infinitive split by a word: I was taught to carefully drive in rainy weather.
Not split: I was taught to drive carefully in rainy weather.
Infinitive split by a phrase: I prefer to on a cold day stay in bed.
Not Split: I prefer to stay in bed on a cold day.
Split infinitives are one of the most common errors you’ll see and hear in everyday life. Works of American popular culture frequently split infinitives for reasons of cadence or rhythm. One of the most memorable split infinitives in television history comes from the Star Trek franchise:
…to boldly go…
This is the perfect example of a writer choosing to split an infinitive because it simply sounds better. The word order lends itself to placing the emphasis on “boldly,” something actors Patrick Stewart and William Shatner both do in their respective versions of the series. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” simply don’t have the same impact. (The latter also breaks the parallelism of the speech as a whole.)
Despite their prevalence, you really should avoid using split infinitives in your own writing. An infinitive split by a single word is generally tolerated in casual writing, but getting in the habit of doing so makes it too easy for split infinitives to creep into your formal writing. You’re better off learning to use infinitives correctly in the first place.