PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)
In this chapter we will examine two aspects of using infinitives: (1) identifying infinitives, and (2) determining the expressed and unexpressed subjects of infinitives.
An infinitive consists of to + the base (or dictionary entry) form of a verb. For example:
Since infinitives are derived from underlying verbs, we often use the underlying verb’s complements or modifiers along with the infinitive form of the verb. When an infinitive is used with a complement or modifiers, the entire infinitive construction is called an infinitive phrase. Here are some examples of infinitives and infinitive phrases used as objects of verbs:
The distinction between an infinitive and an infinitive phrase is rarely important or even helpful. Accordingly, we will use the plural term infinitives as a neutral term for both the simple infinitive and the expanded construction with complements and modifiers. We will use the technical terms infinitive and infinitive phrase only when this distinction is necessary for the discussion.
infinitives resemble gerunds in many ways. However, there are several important differences. One big difference is that gerunds can only be used as nouns, but infinitives can be used as four different parts of speech: nouns, verb complements, adjectives, and adverbs modifying adjectives. Here are some examples of each type. Note that the first example in each pair is an infinitive and the second example is an infinitive phrase.
This section will concentrate only on infinitives used as nouns. This immediately raises the following question: how can we tell infinitives used as nouns from infinitives used as any of the three other parts of speech? The answer is that we will use the same test that we used in the previous chapter to identify gerunds: the it pronoun test. Only infinitives used as nouns can be replaced by the pronoun it. None of the infinitives used as other parts of speech can be replaced by it. The it test works so well because infinitives are always singular, and they always function as abstract nouns—features that are completely compatible with the characteristics of the pronoun it. Here is the it pronoun test applied to all of the examples given above that illustrate the four different ways that infinitives can be used. The it test only works with infinitives used as nouns.
The infinitives in the following sentences have been underlined. Use the it test to determine which of these infinitives is functioning as a noun. If the infinitive is a noun, write “noun” below the infinitive phrase. If it is not a noun, write “not a noun” below the infinitive phrase. The first question is done as an example.
We always aim to please our customers.
It test: We always aim it to please our customers. not a noun
1. The angry citizens demanded to talk to the mayor.
2. CNN just announced her to be the winner.
3. We are pleased to welcome our distinguished visitors.
4. To really learn English grammar takes a lot of time.
5. There seems to have been a mistake.
6. We will be sad to leave such a nice place.
7. The storm caused the river to flood over its banks.
8. We decided to take her parents out to dinner.
9. I am not prepared to answer your questions at this time.
10. Our original idea was to stay home and order some Chinese food.
Infinitives play the expected noun roles of subject, object of verb, and predicate nominative. For example:
Conspicuously absent from this list of noun roles is the role of object of a preposition. infinitives, unlike gerunds, cannot be used as objects of prepositions. For example:
The difference is striking. The infinitive phrase is totally unacceptable while the gerund phrase is completely acceptable. The reason infinitives cannot be used as the objects of prepositions is historical. The to that we use in infinitives is actually the preposition to. The to blocks the infinitive from being the object of the preceding preposition—prepositions cannot be the objects of other prepositions.
Underline all of the infinitives in the following sentences. Use the it test to determine which infinitives are used as nouns. If the infinitive is not a noun, write “not a noun” below it. If the infinitive is a noun, write its grammatical role ( subject, object of verb, or predicate nominative) below it. The first question is done as an example.
My main concern was to find a hotel that wouldn’t wreck my budget.
ANSWER My main concern was to find a hotel that wouldn’t wreck my budget. it predicate nominative
1. To drive a heavy truck requires a special driver’s license.
2. I really wanted to believe that everything would work out OK.
3. Our first class assignment was to determine how much a small company was worth.
4. I decided to take the calculus course after all.
5. To teach in middle school requires a person who really likes kids.
6. I don’t want to give up so easily.
7. To get a new car would be more than we could aff ord right now.
8. I am not ready to go to bed yet.
9. Our main concern is to keep our costs down as much as humanly possible.
10. We need to get ready to go.
Determining the expressed and unexpressed subjects of infinitives
infinitives, like gerunds, have subjects. All of the infinitives we have examined so far have not retained their underlying subjects. We will refer to these kinds of infinitives as having unexpressed subjects. Infinitives that retain their underlying subjects will be called infinitives with expressed subjects. Here are examples of each type:
The unique feature of expressed subjects is that they must be in a prepositional phrase beginning with the preposition for. Since the underlying subject is used as the object of the preposition for, we have the odd situation that pronouns that play the role of subject of the infinitive must be in the object form. This is the case of our example sentence above. We cannot keep the subject pronoun in its subject form:
X For they to give up so easily would be a sign of weakness.
We must put the subject of the infinitive in an object form:
For them to give up so easily would be a sign of weakness.
To see how infinitives with expressed subjects are derived, we will use the same convention as we did in the previous chapter on gerunds and put the underlying sentence in parentheses. Here is how we would convert the underlying sentence:
I would like (she is our spokesperson at the meeting).
The first step is to change the tensed verb in the underlying sentence to an infinitive:
If we were not preserving the subject of the infinitive, we would delete the underlying subject she to produce the final sentence with an unexpressed subject:
I would like to be our spokesperson at the meeting.
This is how all the infinitives in this chapter have been produced up to now. However, as you can see, that sentence has a different meaning from what we are trying to express.
To preserve the subject from the sentence underlying the infinitive, we change the subject noun phrase into the object of the preposition for. In this example, we will change the underlying subject she into the prepositional phrase for her:
The final form of the sentence is the following:
I would like for her to be the spokesperson at the meeting.
Here is a second example, this time with the infinitive phrase playing the role of subject of the main verb in the sentence:
Even if the subject of the underlying sentence is a possessive noun phrase, the possessive noun phrase becomes the object of the preposition for. For example:
Each of the following sentences contains a sentence in parentheses. Reduce this sentence to an infinitive phrase, retaining the subject as the object of the preposition for. Use the same two-step process that is illustrated above. The first question is done as an example.
We arranged (they meet each other).
Step 1 We arranged (they to meet each other).
Step 2 We arranged for them to meet each other.
1. Our final option was (the contractor replaces the entire front porch).
2. We would prefer (the children attend the after-school program).
3. (The company ignores state regulations) was a serious error.
4. John would hate (my friends are disappointed).
5. Our greatest fear would be (the pipes in our house froze while we were away).
6. (They take charge like that) really helped us a lot.
7. Most parents intend (their children inherit the parents’ estate).
8. The plan was (we flew directly back after the conference was over).
9. (They got so upset over what happened) made everyone uncomfortable.
10. The farmers were all praying (the rain came in time to save the crops).
We have seen many examples of infinitives being used as subjects of sentences. Often English speakers prefer to move or transpose these subject infinitives to the end of the sentence. This is especially true if the infinitive phrase is long or complicated. We fill the now vacant subject position with a “dummy” or “empty” it to act as a subject placeholder. Here are some examples of transposed or shifted subject infinitives:
If the main verb in the sentence is a linking verb followed by a predicate adjective, we nearly always transpose the subject infinitive. For example:
Here is another example:
Underline the infinitives used as subjects. Transpose the infinitives to the end of the sentence and put it in the vacated subject position. The first question is done as an example.
Not to get the promotion was a bit of a disappointment.
It was a bit of a disappointment not to get the promotion.
1. For us to accept the offer made perfect economic sense.
2. For them not to finish the job on time would be very costly.
3. For us to get an independent assessment of the costs seemed only prudent.
4. To have a very low voter turnout was Senator Blather’s only hope.
5. For the whole family to go skiing at a resort would cost an arm and a leg.
6. To keep the house clean with children and pets takes a lot of work.
7. For him to say such a thing struck us as very strange.
8. For our company to go so deeply into debt worried everyone.
9. To contest the mayor’s decision in court would take a lot of time and effort.
10. For us to lose the first two games would put us in an impossible position.
The real problem is when the subject of the infinitive is unexpressed. When there is no expressed subject, our interpretation of the infinitive is guided by a set of default interpretations. There is no guarantee that these interpretations are correct; nevertheless, these are the interpretations that listeners and readers will place on the unexpressed subjects in the absence of any other information. There are two sets of default interpretations, one for when infinitives are used as the subjects of their sentences and a second set for when infinitives are used as objects of verbs.
When the infinitive plays the role of subject, there are two default interpretations of the missing subject. One is that we look for a plausible noun phrase following the main verb that we can use as the unexpressed subject of the infinitive. Here are some examples:
To lose that contract would be a disaster for our company.
Our company is the default unexpressed subject of to lose.
Just to get the right cable for the printer cost Tom twenty dollars.
Tom is the default unexpressed subject of to get.
To miss an important exam was totally out of character for her.
Her is the default unexpressed subject of to miss.
If there is no noun phrase following the main verb that could possibly function as the subject of the infinitive, a likely default interpretation is that the infinitive is being used to make a generalization. For example:
To be cut off from all human contact is a terrifying prospect.
The most likely interpretation of this sentence is that it is a generalization about what would happen to anybody who is totally cut off from others.
Here are some more examples of subject infinitives being used to make generalizations:
To become fluent in spoken English takes years.
To lose a job in this economy is really bad news.
When the infinitive plays the role of object of the verb, the most common default interpretation is that the subject of the main sentence is the unexpressed subject of the infinitive. Here are some examples:
We need to get some milk at the grocery store.
We is the default unexpressed subject of get.
He always tries to be helpful.
He is the default unexpressed subject of be.
Underline the infinitives in the following sentences. Identify the subject using the appropriate default interpretation. If there is no subject, write “generalization.” The first question is done as an example.
Roberta started to call the meeting to order.
Roberta is the unexpressed subject of to call.
1. To give up easily suggests a lack of commitment.
2. She never forgets to thank people who have done her a favor.
3. To pass the exam on the first try shows that Marion was really prepared.
4. The trial continued to attract national attention for weeks.
5. To have this much snow in the mountains means that we may have spring flooding.
6. Thanks, but some friends offered to drive us to the airport.
7. To constantly have to add oil means that we should take the car to the garage.
8. Somehow, John always seems to get his own way.
9. It is not easy to get old.
10. It really upset all of us to see the house left in such poor condition.