What Is an Infinitive Phrase? (with Examples)

Our Story

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase is the infinitive form of a verb plus any complements and modifiers.

infinitive phrase example

The complement of an infinitive verb will often be its direct object, and the modifier will often be an adverb. For example:
  • He likes to knead the dough slowly.
  • (The infinitive verb is "to knead." The complement is its direct object ("the dough"). The modifier is the adverb ("slowly"). They all make up the infinitive phrase (the shaded text).)

Examples of Infinitive Phrases

Here are some examples of infinitive phrases (shaded):
  • He helped to build the roof.
  • The officer returned to help the inspectors.
  • Let me show you the best way to fit a door quickly.
  • She tells you to dance like no one is watching.

The Function of Infinitive Phrases

An infinitive phrase can play the role of a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.

Infinitive Phrases Used As Nouns

Here are some infinitive phrases used as nouns.

Like all nouns, an infinitive phrase can function as a subject, an object, or a complement within a sentence.

Here are two examples of infinitive phrases as subjects:
  • To have a big dream requires the same effort as having a small dream. Dream big! (Brazilian-Swiss businessman Jorge Paulo Lemann)
  • (The infinitive phrase is the subject of "requires.")
  • To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something, but to fly is everything. (Aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal)
  • (This quotation has three infinitive phrases functioning as nouns. They are all the subjects of "is.")
Here are two examples of infinitive phrases as objects:
  • He helped to build the roof.
  • (The infinitive phrase is the direct object of "helped.")
  • Nobody wants to hear long speeches. (Guitarist Rick Nielsen)
  • (The infinitive phrase is the direct object of "wants.")
Here are two examples of infinitive phrases as complements:
  • The only solution was to lower the standards.
  • (The infinitive phrase is a subject complement. It completes the linking verb "was.")
  • Our aim is to help the clients help themselves, not to tell them what to think. (Businessman Peter Hargreaves)
  • (The infinitive phrase is a subject complement. It completes the linking verb "is.")

Infinitive Phrases Used As Adjectives

Here are some infinitive phrases used as adjectives.

When an infinitive phrase functions an adjective, it describes a noun or a pronoun.
  • Let him show you the best way to paint the door.
  • (The infinitive phrase describes the noun "way.")
  • I love crime books. I need one to read on holiday.
  • (The infinitive phrase describes the pronoun "one.")
  • The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. (Author Marianne Williamson)
  • (The infinitive phrase describes the noun "willingness.")

Infinitive Phrases Used As Adverbs

Here are some infinitive phrases used as adverbs.

Most infinitive phrases that function as adverbs tell us why the action occurred. Most infinitive phrases that function has adverbs could start with "in order to" (as opposed to just "to.")
  • The officer returned to help the inspectors
  • (The infinitive phrase modifies the verb "returned." It tells us why.)
  • He opened the box to reveal a huge bullfrog.
  • (The infinitive phrase modifies the verb "opened." It tells us why.)
  • God loves to help him who strives to help himself. (Greek tragedian Aeschylus)
  • (It can get complicated. The infinitive phrase "to help him who strives to help himself" is functioning as a noun (i.e., it is the direct object of "loves"). That infinitive phrase contains the infinitive phrase "to help himself," which is functioning as an adverb modifying "strives.")

Infinitive Phrases with Bare Infinitives (When Not Preceded by "To")

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

In these examples, the infinitive phrases have a bare infinitive (in bold):
  • He should go home immediately.
  • They might finish the project 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:
  • Dawn helped her friend bake his mother a cake.
  • (The "special" verb is "helped." The direct object is "her friend." In the infinitive phrase, the bare infinitive is "bake." Its direct object is "a cake." This time there is an indirect object ("his mother") in the infinitive phrase too.)
  • I watched them sweep the road as fast as they could.
  • (The "special" verb is "watched." The direct object is "them." In the infinitive phrase, the bare infinitive is "sweep." Its direct object is "the road." The phrase "as fast as they could" is an adverbial clause.)

Why Should I Care about Infinitive Phrases?

Native English speakers can use infinitive phrases without too many snags. For those learning or teaching English though, life is a little trickier because deliberate consideration must be given to how infinitive phrases function (i.e., as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs) before they can be used or taught. The other issue for language learners or teachers is understanding when to drop the "to" of an infinitive verb (i.e., when to use a "bare infinitive"). This is covered in more detail on the infinitive verbs page.

Here are two noteworthy points related to infinitive phrases for native English speakers.

(Point 1) You can usually save two words by deleting "in order" in a phrase that starts "in order to."

If you need to reduce your word count, you can usually replace "in order to" with just "to" without any loss of meaning. For example:
  • You need a stubborn belief in an idea in order to see it realised. (Inventor James Dyson)
  • In order To be a diplomat, one must speak a number of languages, including doubletalk. (Author Carey Williams)
Bear in mind though that using "in order to" has 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.")

Read more about deleting "in order" on the "infinitives" page (see Reason 3).

(Point 2) Split infinitives are okay.

It is not unusual for an infinitive phrase to feature a split infinitive. (A split infinitive occurs when a writer splits the full infinitive with an adverb, e.g., "to really know," "to better understand," "to secretly watch".)

Using a split infinitive is often the most succinct and natural-sounding way to write. However, there's an issue with the split infinitive: some people regard it as non-standard English or even a grammar mistake. Let's be clear. Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable.

That's not the end of the issue though. Can you take the risk that some of your readers might consider you sloppy for using a split infinitive? Here's some advice: Have a quick go at rewording your sentence to avoid the split infinitive, but if your new sentence doesn't read as well (and it probably won't), just go with the split infinitive.

In these examples, the split infinitives are in bold and the infinitive phrases are shaded:
  • I need to accurately present the data.
  • I need to present the data accurately.
  • (Both of these are okay, but the second version (the reworded version) is safer. It doesn't feature a split infinitive that could annoy some of your readers, and it sounds okay.)
  • I need to more than triple my income.
  • I need more than to triple my income. (sounds awkward)
  • (The top one sounds fine, but the second one doesn't. Avoiding the split infinitive is too difficult with this example. Go with the top one.)
Sound Advice

If the reworded version reads worse than the split infinitive, revert to the split infinitive. If the reworded version reads equally as well as the split infinitive, avoid the split infinitive.
Read more about split infinitives.
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 is the infinitive form? What are complements? What are modifiers? What is a direct object? What are finite verbs? What are non-finite verbs? Glossary of grammatical terms