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

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:



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:



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. (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. (Jim Morrison)
  • If one is wise, it is a profitable thing to seem foolish. (Aeschylus)
In these examples, the infinitive verbs are functioning as adverbs:
  • Sins, like chickens, come home to roost. (Charles W. Chesnutt)
  • To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone. (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 wordcount, 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…".)


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See Also

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