What Is the Infinitive Form of a Verb? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Infinitive Verbs

The infinitive form of a verb is the verb in its basic form. It is the version of the verb which will appear in the dictionary. The infinitive form of a verb is usually preceded by "to" (e.g., "to run," "to dance," "to think"). The infinitive form is not always preceded by "to." Look at these examples:
  • I need to run every day.
  • (The infinitive form with the word "to" is called the "full infinitive" or "to-infinitive.")
  • I must run every day.
  • (After certain verbs, the "to" is dropped. The word "to" is not a preposition. It is often called the "sign of the infinitive." There's more on this below.)
  • I run every day.
  • (This is not in the infinitive form. This is a finite verb, i.e., a verb functioning as the main verb.)
An infinitive is a non-finite verb. In other words, it cannot be the main verb in a sentence. An infinitive can be used as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.

Examples of Infinitives as Nouns

Here are some examples of infinitive verbs as nouns:
  • To dance was her passion.
  • (The infinitive is the subject of "was.")
Compare it to this:
  • Dancing was her passion.
  • (This proves that the infinitive "to dance" is being used a noun.)
Here is another example:
  • He likes to hunt.
  • (The infinitive is the direct object of "likes.")
Compare it to this:
  • He likes hunting.
  • (This proves that the infinitive "to hunt" is being used a noun.)

Examples of Infinitives as Adjectives

An adjective modifies a noun to tell us something about the noun (e.g., its colour, type, or number). You have to bear this in mind when working out how infinitives function as adjectives. Here are some examples of infinitive verbs as adjectives:
  • Give him an ornament to polish.
  • (The infinitive modifies "ornament." This means it is functioning as an adjective.)
Compare it to this:
  • Give him an ornament that he can polish.
  • (The clause "that he must polish" is an adjective clause. This proves that the infinitive "to polish" is being used an adjective.)
Here is another example:
  • I need a volunteer to take the minutes.
  • (The infinitive modifies "volunteer." This means it is functioning as an adjective.)
Compare it to this:
  • I need a volunteer who is prepared to take the minutes.
  • (The clause "who is prepared to take the minutes" is an adjective clause. Therefore, the infinitive "to take" is being used an adjective. Note how "to take" is grouped with "the minutes." This is an infinitive phrase.)
An infinitive that acts as an adjective usually appears immediately after the noun it is modifying.

Examples of Infinitives as Adverbs

An adverb usually modifies a verb to tell us when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent an action is performed. You have to bear this in mind when working out how infinitives function as adverbs. Here are some examples of infinitive verbs as adverbs:
  • The officer returned to help.
  • (The infinitive modifies the verb "returned." This means it is functioning as an adverb.)
Compare it to this:
  • The officer returned so he could help.
  • (The clause "so he could help" is an adverbial clause. This proves that the infinitive "to help" is being used an adverb.)
Here is another example:
  • He will complete the mission to set an example.
  • (The infinitive modifies the verb "will complete." This means it is functioning as an adverb.)
Compare it to this:
  • He will complete the mission so he can set an example.
  • (The clause "so he can set an example" is an adverbial clause. Therefore, the infinitive "to set an example" is being used an adverb. Note how "to set" is grouped with "an example." This is an infinitive phrase.)

Bare Infinitives (When Not Preceded by "To")

Most infinitives are preceded by "to," but after certain verbs, the "to" is dropped. The most obvious example is when an infinitive follows "can," "could," "may," "might," "must," "shall," "should," "will," or "would" (i.e., a modal verb). For example:

bare infinitive example

More examples (bare infinitives shaded):
  • He should go home.
  • (This is called a "bare infinitive.")
  • They might finish by Wednesday.
Bare infinitives also follow other verbs. The main ones are "feel," "hear," "help," "let," "make," "see," and "watch." This time, there is a direct object involved. For example:

bare infinitive second example

More examples (bare infinitives shaded):
  • Mark helped his friend finish.
  • (The "special" verb is "helped." The direct object is "his friend.")
  • I watched them bake the bread.
  • (The "special" verb is "watched." The direct object is "them.")

Real-Life Examples of Infinitive Verbs

In these examples, the infinitives are shaded and the infinitive phrases are in bold. Remember that an infinitive phrase is the infinitive form of a verb plus all the bits that go with it (i.e., complements and modifiers).

In these two examples, the infinitive verbs are functioning as nouns:
  • Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy. (Founding Father of USA Benjamin Franklin)
  • Some guys like to fight on even playing grounds, and some guys like to cheat. (Boxer Deontay Wilder)
In these examples, the infinitive verbs are functioning as adjectives:
  • Friends give you total freedom to be yourself. (Singer Jim Morrison)
  • If one is wise, it is a profitable thing to seem foolish. (Greek tragedian Aeschylus)
In these examples, the infinitive verbs are functioning as adverbs:
  • Sins, like chickens, come home to roost. (Author Charles W. Chesnutt)
  • To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone. (Singer Reba McEntire)
Here's a bit more about infinitive phrases. Look at this example:
  • He likes to knead the dough slowly.
Apart from the infinitive verb itself (here, "to knead"), the most common components of an infinitive phrase will be the thing being acted up (here, "the dough") and an adverb telling us how, when, or where (here, "slowly"). In this example, "the dough" is a verb complement (in this case, it’s a direct object) and "slowly" is a modifier (in this case, an adverb of manner).

Why Should I Care about Infinitive Verbs?

There are three good reasons to care about infinitives.

(Reason 1) Use the infinitive form to name the verb.

When discussing grammar, the full infinitive (e.g., "to play") is used to name the verb.
  • The verb to play has the participles playing and played.
  • In the present tense, to be has the forms "am," "is," and "are."
Also, you will definitely need to know what infinitive verbs are if you decide to learn a foreign language. If you don't use the term "infinitive verb" in lesson 1, you'll use it in lesson 2 and most other lessons thereafter.

(Reason 2) Split infinitives are okay.

A split infinitive occurs when a writer splits the full infinitive with an adverb (e.g., "to really laugh," "to better understand," "to secretly plot").

You shouldn't be surprised if you find yourself using a split infinitive because it is often the most succinct, accurate, and natural-sounding way to write. But, there's bit of an issue with the split infinitive: some regard it as non-standard English or even a grammar mistake. (Just so we're clear, it's neither. It's perfectly acceptable.)

The issue doesn't end there though. Your readers who think a split infinitive is wrong might consider you sloppy for using one. So, what's the answer? Avoid or use? Here's the final advice: Have a quick go at rewording, but if your new sentence doesn't read as well (and it probably won't), go with the split infinitive.

(Reason 3) An infinitive can usually replace "in order to."

To reduce your word count, you can usually replace "in order to" with "to" without any loss of meaning.
  • The doctors joined the A&E team in order to gain experience.
  • In 2008, scientists discovered bacteria that had adapted in order to live in hairspray.
Even though it adds to your wordcount, "in order to" does have an advantage: it makes it clear that the text that follows is the reason for performing the action. (It's like using "so as to.")
  • Jack built a metal detector to find gold nuggets.
  • (Here, "to find gold nuggets" could be an adjective modifying "detector." Jack's device might be a gold-nugget-only detector.)
  • Jack built a metal detector in order to find gold nuggets.
  • (With "in order to," it's clear that "to find gold nuggets" is an adverb modifying "built." It tells readers why he built the metal detector, which readers will now take to be a standard metal detector.)
There's another advantage. Using "in order to" puts a little more emphasis on the reason for the action.

These two advantages are not normally why people use "in order to." Mostly, it's used because writers think it sounds more highbrow. It's not highbrow. It's inefficient.

That said though, "in order not to" (i.e., the negative version) flows far better than "not to."
  • In order not to offend anybody, in order not to seem to be partisan, the term "terrorist" is virtually outlawed in US-run news agencies. (Journalist Kevin Meyers)
  • (This reads far better than "Not to offend anybody, not to seem to be partisan....")


Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are verbs? What are finite verbs? What are non-finite verbs? What is an infinitive phrase? Glossary of grammatical terms