What are English Infinitives?: Question Answered

If you are learning English, you are probably already tired of the word “infinitive”. Am I right? When I first started learning languages I had no idea what it was and my guess is that if you are reading this post you don’t either.

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What is an infinitive?

So basically, it is “to” followed by the base from of the verb and sometimes we use the base form without “to” as an infinitive. When an infinitive doesn’t have “to” in it, we call it a bare infinitive.

Now the question, “what is the base verb?” might arise. This form of a verb is the form that you will find in a dictionary.

We can use English infinitives as nouns, adverbs and adjectives. (When we use a verb as a word that is not a verb it is called a verbal.) So, the idea of infinitives is that we are talking about the idea of an action and not the action actually being carried out.

For example, when I say “the children play in the park everyday”, “play” is the action or the main verb. But when I say “the children like to play in the park”, “play” is no longer the main verb, “like” is. This means that we are talking about the idea of playing, but “play” is not the main action of the sentence.

Like I mentioned earlier, we have two forms of the infinitive. We have the “to-infinitive” (also known as full infinitives) and the “bare infinitive” (without “to”). In the next section I will explain each of those in detail as well as their uses.

Uses of the “to”-infinitive

Of the two infinitives, this is the one that you will use or see most. The places where you will see them is:

1. As a noun

Sometimes we want to talk about an action. This would mean that the action is the subject of the sentence. In these cases we use the “to”-infinitive, like this:

To learn you need to open your mind.

To walk away from something you love could be the hardest, but also the best thing to do.

2. As an adverb

Adverbs describe verbs, so when an infinitive is used as an adverb it is used to the describe the main verb. In these cases they are used to give a reason for why someone if doing something. In other words it tells us the intention of the person carrying out the action. Here are some examples:

I went to the coffee shop to work.

Ann studied to do well in her test.

You can see here that the “to” is used in the place of “in order to” or “so as to” because it is shorter and we don’t like to take the long road, do we? Let’s use the first sentence of the previous example as an example:

I went to the coffee shop to work.

I went to the coffee shop in order to work.

I went to the coffee shop so as to work.

3. As an adjective

Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. So, we can also use infinitives to do this.

Andrew has homework to do.

Everyone needs someone to love.

4. After an adjective

Although full infinitives can be used as adjectives, they can also be used after adjectives to give some more information. For example:

The trees are beautiful to look at.

It is hard to walk away from something you love.

It is good for your health to exercise.

5. With some adverbs

Sometimes we use the “to”-infinitive with the adverbs “too” and “enough” to give more information as to why we are or are not satisfied with something. In most cases the sentences would still be a complete sentence without the infinitive, but we add it to make our thoughts clear.

Here are some examples:

They were too late to eat with us.

We have enough books to read in the library.

6. With some question words

Some question words can be used after certain verbs. This combination should then be followed by a “to”-infinitive.

The verbs are:

  • ask
  • decide
  • explain
  • forget
  • know
  • show
  • tell
  • understand

The question words are:

  • how
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • who

Okay, so the recipe that we will be using here is:


Sometimes there will be words before and/or after this structure, but that is the basic idea. Take a look at these examples:

The family have decided where to go for the holidays.

I will explain how to use infinitives in this article.

7. After Some Verbs

This is a more complex use of the infinitive. In short, after the verbs in the below table you can use an infinitive. If you want a more in depth explanation of all the ways in which conjugated verbs and infinitives can be used together, Education First have an amazing post on verbs followed by infinitives.

Bare infinitives in English and their uses

This form of an infinitive is the one that I was talking about earlier that is used without “to”.

1. With “why”

When making suggestions in the form of a question using “why”, we use a bare infinitive.

Why not leave early so you miss the traffic?

Why wait here if you can wait in the comfort of your own home?

2. After “had better”

The expression “had better” also indicates that you have to use a bare infinitive. Here are some examples:

You had better do your homework before your mom gets home.

She had better take the bus to school.

3. After “make”, “let” and “do”

If you use “make”, “let” or “do” in a sentence, chances are that you will need a bare infinitive too. Take a look at these examples:

Her parents do not like her going out so late at night.

Let’s eat before we head to the mall.

They will make you try out for sport in that school.

4. After verbs of perception

Perception is the ability to realise something through your senses. So, perception verbs are basically verbs that talks about your senses like “see”, “feel”, “hear” etc. Here are some examples of how this looks in a sentence combined with bare infinitives:

I saw the children play in the park.

She heard the book fall.

5. After modal verbs

Lastly, we have bare infinitives following modal verbs. There are a few modal verbs in English. Here is a list with them:

Modal Verbs in English List: can, would, could, must, may, shall, might, should, will, ought to

Here is how modals and bare infinitives are used together in sentences:

You should read that book, it is really good.

She will go to school tomorrow.

Concluding thoughts: English infinitives

It can sometimes be hard to know when you should conjugate a verb and when to use the infinitive of it. I hope that this article could help make it a bit easier for you.


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