What is an infinitive?
An infinitive is a verb (most words that start with “to” in English, e.g., to go, to sing, to look) that is not inflected in any way, in theory. Why do I say in theory? Because there are languages whose infinitives change their forms according to person, number and/or voice.
An example would be Latin which has active and passive infinitives that change according to voice. So how many are there exactly? Let’s count with the verb “to claim” in Latin:
- petere – to claim (present active infinitive);
- petī – to be claimed (present passive infinitive);
- petīvisse – to have claimed (perfect active infinitive);
- petītus esse – to have been claimed (perfect passive infinitive);
- petītūrus esse – to be going to claim (future active infinitive);
- petītum īrī – to be going to be claimed (future passive infinitive).
Six! Good thing Latin is a dead language, right? What about living languages that have inflected infinitives?
Galician and Portuguese
Two daughters of Latin: Galician and Portuguese have this feature (called infinitivo conxugado and infinitivo pessoal, respectively – literally, conjugated infinitive / personal infinitive), although they change not in agreement with voice but with person and number.
Incidentally, these are the only living Indo-European languages that allow their infinitives to change their endings according to the person and number. This greatly reduces the difficulty in speaking for foreign learners who often dread the use of the subjunctive mood. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples:
i. (European Portuguese) Para (tu) tomares o pequeno-almoço, tens de levantar-te cedo.
ii. (Brazilian Portuguese) Para (você) tomar o café da manhã, tem que se levantar cedo.
iii. (Galician) Para (ti) almorzares, tes que erguerte cedo.
We can render them in a similar fashion in English and Spanish, with their respective infinitives (albeit not possible to be conjugated):
i. (English) For you to have breakfast, you have to get up early.
ii. (Spanish) Para (tú) desayunar, tienes que levantarte temprano.
Alternatively, we could make use of the subjunctive for all of the above:
i. (European Portuguese) Para que (tu) tomes o pequeno-almoço, tens de levantar-te cedo.
ii. (Brazilian Portuguese) Para que (você) tome o café da manhã, tem que se levantar cedo.
iii. (Galician) Para que (ti) almorces, tes que erguerte cedo.
iv. (English) In order that you have breakfast, you have to get up early.
v. (Spanish) Para que (tú) desayunes, tienes que levantarte temprano.
Languages tend to simplify matters, so nowadays, speakers of languages that traditionally used the subjunctive choose to use the infinitive, such are the cases of English and Spanish.
- (English infinitive) I suggested him to do it.
- (English subjunctive) I suggested that he (should) do it.
The subjunctive form that one should do is more commonly found in Commonwealth English. In North American English, the standard subjunctive form is that one do.
- (Spanish infinitive) Le sugerí (para él) hacerlo.
- (Spanish subjunctive) Le sugerí que lo hiciera/hiciese él.
There are cases in which neither the subjunctive nor the infinitive is possible in English but are both possible in Spanish:
- (English gerund) They left without my/me noticing anything.
- (Spanish infinitive) Se fueron sin yo enterarme de nada.
- (Spanish subjunctive) Se fueron sin que yo me enterase/enterara de nada.
In English, except for modal verbs, the infinitives can have two forms: the full infinitive (with to: to work, to swim, to think) and the bare infinitive (without to: work, swim, think). The choice between them is often a daunting task for learners of English. In many cases, the full infinitive and the bare infinitive can be used interchangeably, with the former being more formal, except the following cases in which only the latter can be used:
i. After the modal verbs: will, shall, would, could, can (but not be able to), may, might, must (but not have to), should (but not ought to), and needn’t (but not need to, which observes the rules of a normal verb):
- I will see you. (not: I will to see you*.)
- I can’t find the book. (not: I can’t to find the book*.)
Compare: I won’t be able to find the book. (not: I won’t be able find the book*.)
- I should go now. (not: I should to go now*.)
Compare: I ought to go now. (not: I ought go now*.)
- He needn’t buy it. (not: He needn’t to buy it*.)
Compare: He doesn’t need to buy it. (not: He doesn’t need buy it*.)
ii. After certain verbs such as hear, see, make, let, only the bare infinitives can be used:
- I heard them say that. (not: I heard them to say that*.)
- She saw him cook. (not: She saw him to cook*.)
- Don’t make him go. (not: Don’t make him to go*.)
- Let me see it! (not: Let me to see it*!)
iii. After certain idiomatic expressions such as would rather and had better:
- I would rather not tell you that. (not: I would rather not to tell you that*.)
- You had better come. (not: You had better to come.)
Colloquially, many English speakers drop the “had” in “had better.”
iv. After “why” (informal usage):
- Why eat so fast?
- Why think so hard?
Otherwise, as noted above, usually when there are two verbs in a sequence, the second verb can be the full infinitive (more formal) or the bare infinitive (more informal):
- Could you help me to arrange the room? / Could you help me arrange the room?
- Would you care to join us for supper? / Would you care join us for supper?
- Let’s go to buy something. / Let’s go buy something.
In Commonwealth English, however, the standard form would be: Let’s go and buy something.
That said, in most cases the full infinitive is needed:
- He tried to go to the park early. (not: He tried go to the park early*.)
Compare with the other possibility (with gerund): He tried going to the park early.
- I wanted to go home. (not: I wanted go home*.)
Languages without the infinitive!?
Yes, you read it right! There are modern languages with no infinitive.
The most prominent languages without the infinitive hail from within and around the Balkan Peninsula — the languages belonging to the language area called the Balkansprachbund. These languages are not closely related (most of them do belong to the Indo-European family and are distantly related, however), but they share many common features due to language contact. One of them being the avoidance or the loss of the infinitive.
Curious, isn’t it?
This innovation is said to have started in the evolution of Modern (demotic) Greek, in which the traditional infinitives are replaced by the subjunctive form. Thus, in Modern Greek, a sentence like “I want to buy it” would literally be “I want that I buy it” — requiring the knowledge of the subjunctive from day one, when it is commonly considered to be a rather advanced aspect for other languages (in Spanish, for instance).
In Bulgarian and its closely related language Macedonian (both from the Eastern South Slavic branch of the Indo-European family), the loss of infinitive is complete. In standard Romanian (from the Eastern Romance branch of the same language family) and Serbo-Croatian (from the Western South Slavic branch), the loss of infinitive is almost complete but is still used interchangeably with the subjunctive. You can still find the infinitives listed in Romanian and Serbo-Croatian dictionaries and textbooks, but for Greek and Bulgarian, for example, the “I” (first-person singular) form of the verb will be listed.
Other languages from the area that exhibit this feature include Tosk Albanian as well as those spoken by the ethnic minorities — Bulgarian Turkish and Bulgarian Erli Romani dialects (in standard Turkish and other Romani dialects, the infinitive is used).
Idiomatic English: I want to go. (Literally, in these languages, “I want that I go.”)
Modern Greek: Θέλω να πάω. (Thélo̱ na páo̱.)
Romanian: Vreau să merg.
Bulgarian: Искам да отида. (Ískam da otída.)
Serbo-Croatian: Желим да идем. / Želim da idem.