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Author Topic: How infinitive phrases work  (Read 50 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 18, 2018, 07:48:56 AM »

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. Thus, in the sentence “To find true love in a strange, foreign land was such a wonderful but disorienting experience,” the phrase “to find true love in a strange, foreign land” is an infinitive phrase—a noun form that serves as the subject of the sentence.


An infinitive phrase obviously has to be in the noun form to serve as a subject, and to be in the noun form as well to serve as object of the verb—“The newly married couple loved to take long walks in the beach during their honeymoon”—or to serve as a subject complement—“His lifelong goal was to write the Great Filipino Novel before even finishing college.”

Other than working as a noun form, an infinitive phrase can also serve as a modifier in the form of an adjective phrase or adverb phrase. For instance, in the sentence “The runner simply didn’t have the desire to make it to the finish line,” the infinitive phrase “to make it to the finish line” works as an adjective modifying the noun “desire.” On the other hand, in “We must strive to rise above our limitations as a people,” the infinitive phrase “to rise above our limitations as a people” works as an adverb modifying the verb “strive.” (Recall now that an adjective is that part of speech that typically modifies a noun, and that an adverb is that part of speech that typically modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.)


When an infinitive phrase works as an adjective or an adverb in a sentence, we don’t have to worry at all about the subject-verb agreement rule. That rule applies only to noun forms when working as the subject of a sentence. And, as we have already seen, we don’t have to worry about the subject-verb agreement rule either when an infinitive phrase is in the noun form because it will always be singular in sense, as in “To find better living quarters at the university is Amelia’s plan for next weekend.”

Spotting an infinitive phrase in a sentence is usually very easy because like the basic infinitive form itself, it is normally preceded by the word “to.” However, in some sentence constructions, certain infinitive phrases have to drop that “to” to work properly. This happens when those infinitive phrases work in conjunction with such perception verbs as “see,” “feel,” “hear,” and “watch” and such helping verbs as “help,” “let,” and “make.” We might then call such infinitive phrases “bare infinitive phrases,” in the same way that we call the infinitive without the “to” as a “bare infinitive.”


Here are two examples of bare infinitive phrases at work: “We saw the building (to) collapse like a deck of cards.” (Here, “collapse like a deck of cards” is a bare infinitive phrase because it must drop “to”). “They watched the young man (to) rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all.” (Here, “rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all” is similarly a bare infinitive phrase).

One other thing that we need to know about infinitive phrases: not all phrases that begin with “to” are infinitive phrases. When a verb phrase preceded by a “to” consists of a noun or pronoun that is immediately followed by a modifier or modifiers, it isn’t an infinitive phrase. It’s a prepositional phrase, as the ones we find in these two sentences: “We submitted the marketing plan to our boss past noon yesterday.” “They went to the resort all by themselves.” Such phrases clearly don’t have the properties of the infinitive phrase as a noun form.



This essay, 1075th in the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the January 18, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next week: How gerund phrases work)   January 25, 2018
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