Author Topic: The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions  (Read 13907 times)

Joe Carillo

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When composing sentences in English, we will sometimes encounter situations when our desire to be scrupulously grammatical in every respect could actually result in a stilted, awful-sounding sentence. This is particularly true when we use infinitive phrases in conjunction with perception verbs like “hear” and helping verbs like “make.” As we know, an infinitive phrase is an infinitive—a verb in the present tense that’s preceded by “to”—together with its modifiers, objects, or complements. But consider what happens when we use the infinitive phrase “to confess her guilt during the preliminary investigation of the murder case” with the perception verb “hear,” as in this sentence: “We all heard her to confess her guilt during the preliminary investigation of the murder case.”

From the looks of it, that sentence is grammatically perfect, but it certainly doesn’t read and sound right! The preposition “to” in the infinitive phrase “to confess her guilt during the preliminary investigation of the murder case” sticks out like a sore thumb in that sentence and spoils it structurally. Indeed, the best way to make that sentence read and sound right is to drop the “to” from the infinitive phrase altogether, as in this revised construction: “We all heard her confess her guilt during the preliminary investigation of the murder case.”

The dropping of the “to” in such sentences is what’s called the bare infinitive solution. In an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in October last year, I discussed the specific instances when the bare infinitive becomes a must for straightening out certain types of sentences that just won’t read and sound well otherwise. (February 5, 2011)

When to use the bare infinitive and the full infinitive 

Take a look at these two sentences:

(1) “This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

(2) “This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you to tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

Which of them is constructed properly—Sentence 1, which uses the bare infinitive “tackle” in the subordinate clause “that will help you tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam,” or Sentence 2, which uses the full infinitive “to tackle” instead in that same subordinate clause?

A member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who calls herself Jeanne was curious if there’s a general rule for using the bare infinitive or full infinitive, so I made the following analysis of the two sentences as a basis for making that choice:

To simplify the analysis, let’s begin with Sentence 2. In that sentence, the italicized phrase “to tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam” is what’s called an infinitive phrase. We will recall that an infinitive phrase is simply an infinitive—a verb in the present tense that’s normally preceded by “to”—together with its modifiers, objects, or complements. In Sentence 2, that infinitive is “to tackle” and its modifier is the phrase “any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

In Sentence 1, on the other hand, the italicized phrase “tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam” is what’s called a bare infinitive phrase. A bare infinitive phrase is one where the infinitive—“tackle” in this case—has dropped the “to.” The bare infinitive “tackle” in Sentence 1 works in conjunction with the helping verb “help,” and you can see that it has dropped the “to” from “to tackle” without messing up the grammar and semantics of the sentence. In fact, you must have noticed that Sentence 1 with the bare infinitive even reads and sounds better than Sentence 2 with the full infinitive.

But the big question is this: Is there a general rule for using bare infinitives or full infinitives?

To work properly or at least sound right, some sentence constructions using the infinitive phrase need to drop “to” or have the option drop it. This happens in two specific instances:

(1) When the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such perception verbs as “see,” “feel,” “hear,” and “watch”; and

(2) When the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such helping verbs as “help,” “let,” and “make.”

Sentence 1 with the bare infinitive “tackle” belongs to the second category, and it just so happens this sentence reads and sounds better than Sentence 2 with the full infinitive “to tackle.” Even with the full infinitive, though, take note that Sentence 2 also works properly and sounds perfectly.

But certain sentence constructions absolutely need to use the bare infinitive to work properly, like this one: “We saw the building collapse like a deck of cards.” When the full infinitive is used, the sentence sounds very awkward: “We saw the building to collapse like a deck of cards.” This construction should be avoided.

The bare-infinitive construction is also called for in the following sentence where the infinitive “to rise” works in conjunction with the perception verb “watch”: “They watched the young man rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all.” Now see how awful and stilted that sentence becomes when it uses the full infinitive “to rise”: “They watched the young man to rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all.”

Indeed, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for making the choice between using a full infinitive and a bare infinitive in a sentence. We ultimately just have to play it by ear. (October 2, 2010)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 2, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Menie

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Re: The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions
« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2011, 11:59:42 PM »
I noted this phrase in your essay above:  "take note that Sentence 2 also works properly and sounds perfectly."  I would have said "... sounds perfect", since the verb "sounds" in this phrase is a linking verb. 

Joe Carillo

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Re: The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2011, 01:16:35 AM »
You’re right. I should have written “sounds perfect” instead of “sounds perfectly.” That sentence in my essay should therefore read as follows: “Even with the full infinitive, though, take note that Sentence 2 also works properly and sounds perfect.” The adjective “perfect” is the correct word to use in that phrase instead of the adverb “perfectly.” This is because “sounds” is one of the so-called perception verbs, which, as you correctly point out, function as linking verbs—meaning that they don’t actually act on the subject of the sentence but simply link it to the predicate. This also means that what should grammatically follow the perception verb “sounds” should be an adjective (“perfect”) and not an adverb (“perfectly”).

Miss Mae

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Re: The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions
« Reply #3 on: February 16, 2011, 03:29:23 PM »
Sir, can bare infinitives and full infinitives mix in a single sentence? Somehow, the following sentence doesn't seem to sound right for me: If not for his own car, he wouldn’t be able to attend to his official engagements and to relax ‘amid his gargantuan responsibilities.’

If I could just have my own way, I would rather write it as If not for his own car, he wouldn’t be able to attend to his official engagements and relax ‘amid his gargantuan responsibilities.'

I would concede if you think so, though.

Joe Carillo

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Re: The bare infinitive solution to some intractable sentence constructions
« Reply #4 on: February 16, 2011, 07:12:46 PM »
Let’s take a close look at your version of the sentence you presented:

“If not for his own car, he wouldn’t be able to attend to his official engagements and relax amid his gargantuan responsibilities.”

It would seem that this version mixes the full infinitive phrase “to attend to his official engagements” and what looks like a bare infinitive phrase, “relax amid his gargantuan responsibilities.” Actually, though, there’s no mixing of a full infinitive and bare infinitive in this case. What we have here is simply a sentence that compounds two full infinitives, “ to attend” and “to relax,” but the second one is ellipted—the element “to” is dropped without adversely affecting the grammar and structure of the sentence—for the sake of conciseness and ease of articulation.

We will recall that we have a choice in how to string up serial infinitives—either to use “to” for each of them, as in “She likes to sing, to dance, and to write,” or to use “to” only for the first of the series of infinitives, as in “She likes to sing, dance, and write.” In the second version, dance” and “write” are not bare infinitives but full infinitives in ellipted form. As discussed earlier in this discussion thread, bare infinitives become mandatory or advisable only (1) when the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such perception verbs as “see,” “feel,” “hear,” and “watch”; and (2) when the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such helping verbs as “help,” “let,” and “make.”