HomeQ&AUse of the infinitive in English

Use of the infinitive in English

4
votes

My girlfriend (a native Spanish speaker) frequently uses the infinitive "to" in English where it's not necessary. "Will you help me to wash the dishes?"

Is there a general rule I can give her to help her know when to use the infinitive and when not to?

So far the best thing I've come up with but I'm not sure is totally accurate is if you would use "que" after a conjugated verb, then use the infinitive in English. For example. "Tengo que trabajar," is, "I have to work."

I just can't think of an example in English where you would use "to" after a verb that does not fit the rule above.

Thanks in advance for your help.

8872 views
updated OCT 4, 2009
posted by Difster

19 Answers

3
votes

Hi Difster

The verbs that you are using all signal the subjunctive mood in English. If you are not familiar with this topic, here is a brief overview.

The subjunctive is not a tense, it is called a mood because it indicates your attitude towards a statement that you are making. Their are three moods altogether: The indicative (for statements of fact), the imperative (for commands) and the subjunctive (for hypothetical conditions, wishes, recommendations, requirements or suggestions). I will not go into the details of the first two moods; instead I am going to stick with the subjunctive as that is what you are talking about when you use the following statement:

I didn't mean that "to" works with every "que." I just meant that where "que" = "to" you would use "to" in English. Tengo que, necesito que, quiero que, etc.

In general the subjunctive requires either a modal auxiliary (more on this in a minute) or a subjunctive verb form. The subjunctive verb form is either the infinitive or the bare form of the infinitive (depending on the situation).

In many cases (but not all) English uses modal auxiliaries (helping verbs) to signal the subjunctive under the conditions listed above. These helping verbs include would, could, should, may, might, can, must, and ought.

When these modal auxiliaries are used to express a wish, probability, possibility, capability, permission, a recommendation, a requirement, a conclusion or a contrary to fact condition then the infinitive is usually not necessary (except in the case of ought).

Often you will find that the modal auxiliary will be replace by a form of one of the following: to be able (can), have (must), need (must). Other verbs that can take the infinitive include want and forms of to be + adverb(that describe probability/possibility: likely, probably, conceivably etc). wish (wish is a special case as it can also take the past and past perfect subjunctive)

Examples:

To Express a conclusion. Modal: must

He must have been lying [using modal]

He had to have been lying [using had]

To Express a Recommendation. Modal: should or ought

The government should help [using modal]

The government ought to help [using modal ought + inf]

To Express a Requirement. Modal: must

Firemen must be ready for action. [modal]

Firemen have to be ready for action [using have]

Showing Permission. Modal: may or can

Americans can visit Russia now. [modal]

Americans may visit Russia now. [modal]

Americans are able to visit Russia now. [using be able]

Showing Capability. Modal: can

I can walk by myself. [modal]

I am able to walk by myself. [using be able]

Showing Possibility. Modal: may, might, can, or could

The next president may be a woman.[modal]

Another war might destroy the world.[modal]

Anything can happen[modal]

A tsunami could strike at any time [modal]

A tsunami is likely to strike at any time. [be + adv]

Showing Probability. Modal: should

An increase in supply should reduce gas prices. [modal]

An increase in supply is likely to reduce gas prices. [*be + adv]

Expressions of Want. Modal: none [usually takes infinitive]

I want to eat

I want to go to the beach.

I want my friends to go to the beach

Expressing a Wish. Modal: would, could

I wish my parents would support me [modal]

I wish my parents could support me [modal]

Wish is a special case that uses the past (wishing for something in the present) or past perfect (wishing for something in the past) subjunctive.

I wish (that) my parents were supporting me. [past subj]

I wish (that) my parents had supported me. [past perf subj].


Their are other cases where the infinitive is used, for example with verbs constructions like "be + going" as in "I am going to eat", etc. I tried to limit this discussion to the subjunctive which is what your examples pertained to. If you are interested in pursuing the subject of infinitives in other cases, then try this link.

Infinitives

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Izanoni1
Great answer and very complete, especially considering the chaos tonight!!! - Nicole-B, OCT 3, 2009
Have a vote Izanoni - but have we found a way of explaining when the "to" should or should not be used? I can't find an easy one. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
Also I am not sure if all sentences using modals are in fact "subjunctive" - what do you think? - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
I looked at that link too but did not find the answe to Difster's original post. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
By the way Izanoni - another pet dislike of mine is when the teachers refer to Modals as auxiliary verbs. They are in no way like verbs. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
Hi Ian...you've given me a bit too much to answer in a comment so I'll answer it below. - Izanoni1, OCT 3, 2009
at last - the answer Difster will find useful - Issabela, OCT 3, 2009
2
votes

I didn't mean that "to" works with every "que." I just meant that where "que" = "to" you would use "to" in English. Tengo que, necesito que, quiero que, etc.

Also, I'm trying to find out if there is a specific rule or not; I don't know. What stated is the closest I can come.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Difster
There is no specific rule; infinitives are used with some verbs you need to memorize. Such things are called "verb patterns", when the form of the second verb depends on the first verb. - Issabela, OCT 3, 2009
2
votes

Hello Difster Your question is a very interesting one - I would say particularly when you are helping a Spanish speaker. It sounds like a simple question but it is not and is not easy for someone learning English. Nor it is it easy to explain.

I will try - tomorrow - to find something that will help you. I am in Bolivia and have to sleep now.

In the mean time try looking on the internet - search with something like "when to use the infintive in English" you will get lots of language sites that deal with this problem. Chau for now.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by ian-hill
Just popping in to say ditto...this is a very interesting question indeed! :-) - arnold3, OCT 2, 2009
How is this Spam? Spam you make sandwiches with. lol - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
There was someone last night who became very emotional and flagged every single answer. One more case-in-point for my call for a revision of the flagging process. It is abused at times. - arnold3, OCT 3, 2009
p.s. I'm surprised that request I made didn't get more support. Anyway, I'm sorry you got hit by the rogue flagger. - arnold3, OCT 3, 2009
2
votes

Can you help me wash the dishes , sounds like a command for you to wash the dishes while she does something else. Can you help me to wash the dishes sound like a request for assistance, (you wash I'll dry) ,the use of the word "to" is correct .

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by albert-fabrik-
"Can you help me by washing the dishes" would indicate that the speaker wants to do something else. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
"Can you help me wash the dishes" - is really a question and not a command. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
"Wash the dishes." - is the command. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
2
votes

Albert, if I want someone to do a task instead of me, I would ask, "Can you wash the dishes for me?" Or, "Can you help me by washing the dishes?" Then again, that might be a dynamic language issue; I'm not sure. To me, "Can you help me (to) wash the dishes." Seems like assistance either way.

Ian, you're right, it's not easy to explain. As a native English speaker, it can be very difficult to explain why something in my language is the way it is because I just speak that way and don't question it. In fact, I've learned far more about English grammar by studying Spanish than I ever really learned about English grammar growing up. I knew HOW to use the language, I just couldn't identify the parts. I didn't know the difference between a gerund and a participle before studying Spanish. The odd things about all of that is I've been told I'm a very good writer.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Difster
You are probably a good writer because you have a good ear. You know the proper way to say or write something, you just don't know all of the grammmatical rules to explain why you do what you do. I - Nicole-B, OCT 3, 2009
I agree totally with you, I have learned so much more about English grammar, just from studying Spanish. It is an unexpected, but pleasant side effect. - Nicole-B, OCT 3, 2009
2
votes

I told you that they could do it.

Le dije a Ud. que ellos podían hacerlo.

There is a que after a conjugated verb. Where does to...fit in?

"Will you help me to wash the dishes?"

Maybe you shoudn't advise her at all. The preposition to there may be more correct than omitting it. That may be an example of where we omit things in everyday conversation like the relative pronoun "that" where it actually should be used.

I want that you go to the store.

I want you to go to the store. (sounds more everyday acceptable, but the one above is more grammatically correct).

updated OCT 3, 2009
edited by 0074b507
posted by 0074b507
That's a case where "que" is more like "that", so I don't think it matches her concept. - arnold3, OCT 2, 2009
(and to be clear, I didn't flag you!) I agree though that having the "to" in there does seem appropriate. - arnold3, OCT 2, 2009
1
vote

God, I love this site...I'm never leaving. wink

edited by Heidita: we will see about that!

updated OCT 4, 2009
edited by 00494d19
posted by ChamacoMalo
I gave you bunches of compliments all night long Freed...get a grip - ChamacoMalo, OCT 2, 2009
Why ever would ChamacoMalo make this comment. There is no reference before this by Qfreed that would elicit such a respone by ChamacoMalo. It looks like ChamacoMalo has lost it! - Moe, OCT 2, 2009
1
vote

Hi Ian,

I will do my best to respond to your comments

...have we found a way of explaining when the "to" should or should not be used? I can't find an easy one.

No, not completely. The answer I gave was strictly for the rules using the subjunctive and the infinitive. I stuck to the subjunctive because that is the specific instances that the original poster was using in all of his examples. (i.e. can you help, I have to..., I need to..., etc.)

Also I am not sure if all sentences using modals are in fact "subjunctive" - what do you think?

You may be correct about this Ian. I thought that I made this clear in my post that the modal auxiliary are not required for the subjunctive but are often present. Seeing your response I see that I must not have made this as clear as I thought I had. See if the following statements clarify things.

  1. The subjunctive often employs the use of modal auxiliaries (helping verbs) to signal the subjunctive mood.
  2. To be in the subjunctive the auxiliary is not always required; it is necessary, however, that the sentence express one of the following: A wish/hope, probability, possibility, capability, permission, a requirement, a recommendation or suggestion, a conclusion, hypothetical conditions, or a contrary-to-fact condition. These are the actual requirements for the subjunctive.
  3. It is common in English to use these modal auxiliaries, but a subjunctive verb form can be used as well. This is usually the infinitive (but can be the bare form of the verb in the present subjunctive - Long live the queen!, etc).
  4. It is not the modal that "makes" the subjunctive, it is whether the sentence expresses one of the preceding conditions (a wish, probability, etc)

I never stated that the modal auxiliary is only used in the subjunctive, but I suspect that this may be the case because the meaning of each of the modal auxiliaries implicitly defines the conditions for the subjunctive mood.

Did you have any particular instances in mind (besides the conditional) where the modal does not signal the subjunctive but is used in the imperative or indicative, instead? If so, perhaps you could share them with us so that we might be able to scrutinize them a bit and see if we might be able to determine some general rule regarding their use.

I looked at that link too but did not find the answe to Difster's original post.

I did not intend for the link to be a comprehensive answer to his question (it was Wikipedia, after all - not the most reliable source of information). I intended it to be a starting point for his own investigations into the subject. For example, I thought that the statements about the way that the infinitive is often used with intransitive verbs to be an interesting statement. I thought the assertions (such as this one) were enough to get him pointed in the right direction with his own research on the subject. We must, after all, follow the rules of the forum which state to do your own research first. It is difficult to research something if you don't know where to start. The link was intended as a starting point and not and ending point. I suspect that to adequately cover the users initial question (the full usage of the infinitive) would require a bit more time and energy than I am willing to dedicate to the subject (which is why I stuck to its use in the subjunctive - a topic that I am both familiar with and comfortable explaining).

By the way Izanoni - another pet dislike of mine is when the teachers refer to Modals as auxiliary verbs. They are in no way like verbs.

I am not sure why you say this, but I believe that you may be mistaken on this account.

  1. would - preterit of will auxiliary, transitive, intransitive
  2. could - preterit of can (was able)
  3. should - preterit of shall - auxiliary verb (implies authority)
  4. may - auxiliary verb (implies possibility, opportunity, permission)
  5. can - intransitive verb (to be able)
  6. might - preterit of may
  7. must - auxiliary verb - (expresses obligation or necessity)
  8. ought - verb (to be held or be bound in duty or moral obligation)

Why, specifically, do you think that they are not like verbs? Look below at the subject and the predicate of these sentences.

Will you go to the party tomorrow?

*I might. (The same thing as - It is possible)

After looking at this do you still think them unlike verbs?

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Izanoni1
Very good, this time. I am going to copy it. - nila45, OCT 3, 2009
Yes I do still think they are not verbs. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
Fair enough - Izanoni1, OCT 3, 2009
1
vote

Is there a general rule I can give her to help her know when to use the infinitive and when not to?

Lo siento, no puedo ayudarte con esto, pero estoy teniendo el mismo problema con español. Los personas in mi iglesia siempre me corrigen porque ellos saben que estoy aprendiendo español. Es bueno que puedes corregir su novia.

Aquí está un sitio web que puede ayudar,

Click here buen suerte,

Jack

updated OCT 3, 2009
edited by Jack-OBrien
posted by Jack-OBrien
That helps explain the problem - I refere to "zero infinitives" as "base verbs" - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
1
vote

It looks like someone has been applying flags to increase his rep position. He has now been removed.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Eddy
Good - thankyou. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
1
vote

I think the 'to' there is actually correct... whilst it may not be necessary - in that you can often omit words and be understood (you can even drop all articles from what's said and still make sense) ... it could be considered shorter, or it might sound more normal to you if that's what you're used to hearing, but I couldn't call it "better English". In English Proper, I'm pretty sure you do help somebody TO do something, it's certainly how I've grown up hearing and saying it here in England. In my mind the 'to' there is actually more attached to the 'help' than the verb (I want help to ...), multiple verbs would have only one 'to', like "I would like you to wash up and eat", not "I would like you to wash up and to eat", but that's just coming back to what sounds normal for me.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by AnnoLoki
0
votes

Hi Izanoni

The fact that you can usually - or maybe always - express the same meaning by not using a Modal does not mean modals are verbs - or anything like them.

To do so causes learners of English great confusion. Especially Spanish learners. I repeat Modals are not verbs and we should alll stop using the phrase "Modal auxiliary verbs".

Auxiliary verbs are something else entirely.

They act more like adverbs in my opinion in that they change the meaning of the following verb - though real adverbs come after the verb.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by ian-hill
0
votes

In other words - when a modal is used the following verb NEVER has to "to" in front of it. And in subjunctive structures the "to" is not used.

Just to clear up any possible ambiguity. When a modal is used, you will not generally use the infinitive with the verb immediately following the infinitive.

However, if more than one verb follows the modal then the second verb to follow is usually in the infinitive:

I must remember to pay the bills today

I should wash my hands thoroughly (in order) to stay healthy.

I should brush my teeth after every meal to avoid cavities.

Sentences in the subjunctive can also be turned around to form conditionals by placing the infinitive at the beginning of the sentence:

To avoid cavities, I should brush my teeth after every meal.

Similar to the **if-based conditional that uses *want:

If I want to avoid cavities then I should brush my teeth after every meal.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Izanoni1
Yes the second verb but not the one associated with the modal. - ian-hill, OCT 3, 2009
exactly - Izanoni1, OCT 3, 2009
0
votes

Hi Ian

I say Modals should never be considered as any form of verb because:

They can not be conjugated- they have no past forms or future forms on their own. Students get confused from day one when a teacher says "I can" = "Puedo" Poder is a verb and can is not.

For example "could" is not the past tense of "can" which many students assume because we say "I could do it" for "Pude hacerlo"

I am not sure why you say that could is not the past tense of can. In the dictionary it is listed as the preterit (i.e past tense) of can.

But we can say the following

"I can do it now"

"I could do it now"

"I could do it yesterday"

"I could do it tomorrow"

"Could" in the present, past and future.

Very confusing if the student thinks can is a verb. Don't you agree?

I see the point that you are making, but I think that you might be confusing time with tense. While it is true that the verb tense can often be helpful to construct sentences that indicate the time of an action or a condition, they are not the same thing and must not be confused.

For example:

The bus leaves

The bus leaves tomorrow.

The bus leaves today.

The bus left

The bus left today.

The bus left tomorrow.

The bus left yesterday

That is why I call Modals "special words" ( they don't exist as words in a Spanish dictionary whereas all verbs do)

I had to add this - "would" is not the preterit of "will" just as "could" is not the preterit of "can" - they are simply different Modals.

The dictionary (mine at least) disagrees with this point of contention. If you look at can as a modal as an auxiliary meaning to be able then it could be conjugated in this manner.

Present

I am able (I can), you are able (you can), she/he/it is able (she/he/it can), they/you/we are able (they/you/we can).

Past I was able (I could), you were able (you could), she/he/it was able (she/he/it could), they/you/we were able (they/you/we could).

If you were to discount them as verbs, then you must also contend that the verbs: have, be, and do are not verbs either.

The reason that they are called auxiliaries is that they are often used in forming tenses. They are called verbs because they are based on the verbs have, be and do (which can be conjugated). I believe that they are called modals because they indicate mood. Taken together you have modal auxiliary verbs.

Most modal auxiliaries are based on an auxiliary verbs and sometimes a predicate adjective and/or adverb.

I am able (to): I can

I was able (to): I could

I am likely (to): I might

I have (to): I must

etc.

I hope that this adequately explains the terminology. To summarize:

Strictly speaking, they are used as auxiliary verbs which means that they usually play a role in forming tenses and are based on the verbs be and have.

They are called modals because they are used to indicate mood (subjunctive).

Does this make a bit more sense, or does it just raise more questions?

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Izanoni1
0
votes

Albert, if I want someone to do a task instead of me, I would ask, "Can you wash the dishes for me?" Or, "Can you help me by washing the dishes?" Then again, that might be a dynamic language issue; I'm not sure. To me, "Can you help me (to) wash the dishes." Seems like assistance either way.

If you read my post on the subjunctive you will notice that can acts as a modal auxiliary and so the infinitive is unnecessary. If you were to make a similar sentence construction by replacing can with be able then you would need the infinitive:

Are you able to help by washing the dishes/wash the dishes.

You might want to notice that in common usage, this is often said like this (i.e. there is an implication that "if you are able to, then I want you to do the dishes). Notice that if you say it this way:

I want you to do the dishes (if you are able)

The infinitive is used, but if you use a modal auxiliary to express this wish/desire:

Would/will you do the dishes?

Could you do the dishes? (strictly speaking could is the correct tense to use and not can, but I agree that can is often used here incorrectly for the same purpose)


I didn't mention this earlier, but when making hypothetical statements with the if clause (conditional statements) it is often necessary to use the infinitive as well if a modal is not used after the if:

If you were to wash the dishes, I might buy you dessert.

If you would wash the dishes, I might buy you dessert.

Both of these sentences are in the subjunctive as they make washing the dishes a requirement for the second clause.

updated OCT 3, 2009
posted by Izanoni1
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