There are two forms to the Infinitive:
‘To’ Infinitive: The Jamaicans are expected to win.
Bare Infinitives (the particle ‘to’ is excluded): The Jamaicans could win.
Bare Infinitives usually follow modals such as could and would.
The infinitive form of the verb has no time span—past, present, or future—and it is never conjugated.
Only “To Infinitives” may be used as sentence openers:
To love with one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded (Nabokov 40).
To wind up the last scene of thy tragedy, CRUELTY and COWARDICE, twin ruffians, hired and set on by MALICE in the dark, shall strike together at all thy infirmities and mistakes (Stern 20).
To prove that he was still a sound and freethinking stalwart, Elmer went out with Jim one evening and at considerable effort, they carried off a small outhouse and placed it on the steps of the Administration Building (Lewis 37).
To paraphrase Hamlet, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life, his crown wants to wear” (Guerrero 115).
To prepare a shirt for pressing she sprinkled it with water and left it rolled up in a towel (Franzen 265).
Samuel Beckett, in Molloy, achieves a mocking and sarcastic tone by his precise use of infinitives:
To throw him in the hole was all I could have done, and I would have done it gladly (13).
To say I stumbled in impenetrable darkness, no, I cannot. I stumbled, but the darkness was not impenetrable (83).
To cut a long story short he wanted to know if I had seen an old man with a stick pass by (151).
In dispensing advice to writers victimized by critics, Anthony Trollope displays both “To” and “Bare” infinitives in his Autobiography:
If injustice be done him, let him bear it. To do so is consonant with the dignity of the position which he ought to wish to assume. To shriek and scream and sputter, to threaten actions, and to swear about the town that he has been belied and defamed in that he has been accused of bad grammar or a false metaphor, of a dull chapter, or even of a borrowed heroine, will leave on the minds of the public nothing but a sense of irritated impotence. (Trollope 267).
The Spanish philosopher, critic, and essayist Jose Ortega y Gasset, was a great stylist (in the Spanish language). Here’s a translated example of how he closed his essay “The Self and the Other,” collected in his book The Dehumanization of Art:
To excel the past we must not allow ourselves to lose contact with it; on the contrary, we must feel it under our feet because we have raised ourselves upon it (204).
Note that Infinitives may also be used, as sentence openers, in negative form:
Not to inhibit her in any way, he nodded—to show his approval—and changed the subject.
Not to smile respectfully at the very mention of the prefect’s name passes for recklessness in the minds of the peasants of Franche-Comte (Stendhal 88).
Notice how a master writer—Nathaniel Hawthorne[i] in The Blithedale Romance—brings to bear the full force of both ‘To’ and ‘Bare’ infinitives:
To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew—to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep, and at our idler intervals, to repose ourselves on knitting and sewing—these, I suppose, must be feminine occupations for the present (16).
And from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking:
To restrain grief, to inhibit it, to bottle it up, is to fail to use one of God’s means for eliminating the pressure of sorrow (196).
To depict a tedious, static, and to some extent suffocating scene in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte uses a series of infinitives:
I did not like re-entering Thornfield. To pass its threshold was to return to stagnation; to cross the silent hall, to ascend the darksome staircase, to seek my own lonely little room, and then to meet tranquil Mrs. Fairfax, and spend the long winter evening with her, and her only, was to quell wholly the faint excitement wakened by my walk—to slip again over my faculties the viewless fetters of an uniform and too still existence; of an existence whose very privileges of security and ease I was becoming incapable of appreciating (Bronte 12).
Or to project a state of being and enchantment, as we read in Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek:
To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished it final miracle: it has become a fairy tale (Kazantzakis 118).
Or to project a vision of life, as Walter Pater does in his novel Marius, the Epicurean:
To keep the ye clear by a sort of exquisite personal alacrity and cleanliness, extending even to his dwelling-place; to discriminate ever more and more fastidiously, select form and color in things from what was less select; to meditate much on beautiful visible objects, on objects, more especially, connected with the period of youth—on children at play in the morning, the trees in early spring, on young animals, on the fashions and amusements of young men; to keep ever by him if it were but a single choice flower, a graceful animal or sea-shell, as a token and representative of the whole kingdom of such things; to avoid jealously, in his way through the world, everything repugnant to sight; and should any circumstance tempt him to a general converse in the range of such objects; to disentangle himself from that circumstance at any cost of place, money, or opportunity; such were in brief outline the duties recognized, the rights demanded, in this new formula of life (20).
Verbs express action, change, and motion, and their abundant use —in infinitive form or conjugated form— carry the narration with kinetic force. Although the Infinitive form is much less energetic than conjugated forms, it still packs a punch, despite the fact that it is used mainly to provide explanations or justifications.
But a resourceful writer will find creative ways in which to use the infinitive. Take notice of how Professor Michio Kaku in his delightful book Physic of the Impossible begins his book with a series of questions using the infinitive:
One day, would it be possible to walk through walls? To build starships that can travel faster than the speed of light? To read other people’s minds? To become invisible? To move objects with the power of our minds? To transport our bodies instantly through space? (IX).
The Perfect Infinitive tense, being that it is formed with the auxiliary verb ‘to have,’ is a sluggish form and should be avoided in scenes that require action; it may, however, be used to project a serious, solemn tone:
To have done so unless he intended to marry her was a terrible thing and damnable beyond belief.
In this section we’ve treated the infinitive as sentence openers only. But aside from this function, the infinitive has a dozen other uses—some of which I will mention—since they add strength and vitality to the narrative.
To express orders or commands:
The witness is to stay for further questioning.
You’re not to leave till I come back!
To express purpose (with or without the optional ‘in order’):
He joined the Navy to see the world.
We moved to Tokyo to learn Japanese.
To connect a clause to another clause (or other element) to express woe, sorrow, or something bad by ante posing ‘only’:
Penelope opened the envelope only to see a rejection letter.
Felicia found a gift certificate only to see it had already expired.
Elizabeth joined them again only to say that her sister was worse and that she could not leave (Austen, Pride 24).
To qualify nouns without using adjectives:
Columbia University is the school to choose.
Adelly’s upper hand is the hand to kiss.
Salome’s vices were the sins to avoid.
Infinitives may also be used as objects of prepositions:
Taking my own meals in my own sitting room, I had nothing to do with the servants’ dinner, except to wish them a good stomach to it all around, previous to composing myself once more in my chair (Collins 24).
The infinitive may also modify an adjective:
Molly is anxious to take her entrance exam.
And finally, we cannot leave this section without mentioning a construct that professional writers use to great advantage: an infinitive phrase introduced by the word for:
For the First Lady to take a backseat was embarrassing.
For the Governor to admit it publicly was the kiss of death.
[i] Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, where after his graduation from Bowdoin College in Maine, he wrote the bulk of his masterful tales and major romances such as The Scarlett Letter.
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