To Use or Not to Use the Infinitive?

Four common misuses

The infinitive is extremely versatile. You can do a lot with it. That’s why it’s called infinite. The flip side of its having so many uses is that writers don’t always notice when an incorrect one slips into the mix. This installment outlines four common mix-ups. Resolve to avoid them!

Warning: There’s a certain amount of grammar vocab coming up. I need the words to explain, but you don’t necessarily have to absorb them. Just get a handle on the examples, and you’ll probably avoid the errors.

What is the infinitive?

First, a brief refresher. The infinitive is the root form of the verb. It’s usually but not always preceded by to; fortunately, your ear is almost always right on this point. Keep in mind that the to serves not as a preposition but as a kind of prefix, aka the sign of the infinitive.

She booted up her Mac and began to write.

Would a double espresso make her write faster?

Infinitives are not like ordinary “finite” verbs. They may be used as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Sounds complicated, but you use the infinitive in all these ways all the time without even thinking about it.

Noun: She wants to write a screenplay. (direct object of wants)
Noun: To write while raising eight Irish wolfhounds was a challenge. (subject)
Adjective: Such is the will to write. (modifies the noun will)
Adjective: That was the story to write. (modifies the noun story)
Adverb: That story was difficult to write. (modifies the adjective difficult)
Adverb: She opened her notebook to write a poem. (modifies the verb opened)

All that’s just for background. The goal here is not so much to learn how to use the infinitive but to learn when not to use it.

Mix-up 1: Expressing expectation or purpose where there is none

The present infinitive usually indicates expectation, purpose, or compulsion. So when you use it, make sure that’s what you mean to express.

Bad: She wrote all day to accomplish nothing.

Presumably her plan was to accomplish something, not nothing.

Better: She wrote all day but accomplished nothing.

Replace the infinitive with a regular verb, and the meaning is clear. You’ve simply got two actions in a compound predicate: She 1) wrote all day; 2) accomplished nothing.

Better: She wrote all day only to accomplish nothing.

Here, I’ve kept the infinitive, but only (used as an adverb modifying wrote) subtracts the idea of purpose.

Better: She wrote all day, accomplishing nothing.

Yet another option: the present participle. During the time that she was writing, she was accomplishing nothing.

Mix-up 2: Violating the idiom

Idioms are by definition peculiar. Everyone agreed a long time ago to write or say it a certain way, even if  it’s not consistent. One source of trouble is that English idiom sometimes assigns different constructions to synonymous words. For example:

Help to prevent but Aid in preventing

Forbidden to do but Prohibited from doing

Right to deliver but Privilege of delivering

By the way, while the infinitive is often used incorrectly, it seems that writers rarely use a present participle or gerund (an -ing word) where an infinitive is needed—so at least you don’t have to worry about that.

Mix-up 3: Creating a dangling infinitive

If you use an infinitive phrase to modify a verb, make sure the sentence has a logical subject, or you might confuse your reader. Who or what is the actor behind the phrase?

Wrong: To complete your book properly, it should be looked at by an editor.

Complete does not have a logical subject. Who/what is doing the completing? Not it, the book. The infinitive phrase to complete your book is left dangling.

Right: To complete your book properly, you should have it looked at by an editor.

The logical subject is you; you should complete.

Mix-up 4: Mistaking to as the sign of the infinitive when it’s not

Sometime it’s just a preposition following a verb. Watch for this when the preposition is far away from its verb.

Wrong: She dedicated a large part of her life to write a novel.
Right: She dedicated a large part of her life to writing a novel.

The to is not the sign of the infinitive for write. It actually follows the verb dedicated: dedicated … to. To what? To writing.

Now, wasn’t that a consciousness-raising experience? There’s nothing quite like learning to worry about a problem whose existence never troubled you before.