The Grammarphobia Blog

A perfect infinitive

Q: I wonder if  Lara Logan’s grammar was correct when she apologized on 60 Minutes for using a questionable source: “It was a mistake to include him in our report.” Should she have said “to have included”? I’ve been studying modern Greek for several years, and deciphering another language makes me question my understanding of my own. Do you answer emails or should I check your blog for an answer?

A: Yes, we do directly answer the emails sent to us by readers like you. Later, we edit these questions plus our responses, and publish them on our blog. (The questioners remain anonymous.)

Now, on to your question about Lara Logan’s apology for her Oct. 27, 2013, report on 60 minutes about the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the year before.   

What she said in her Nov. 10, 2013, apology—“it was a mistake to include him in our report”—was grammatically correct. There was no need say “to have included” instead of “to include.”

The phrase “to have included” is a perfect infinitive, a construction that’s used in tandem with the main verb of a sentence. The perfect infinitive generally refers to an action that has happened earlier than the action of the main verb.

But in this case, the two actions were simultaneous: making the mistake and including him in the report. They amounted to the same thing.

Since there was no difference in the timing of the actions, the simple infinitive “to include” is appropriate.

The infinitive is an interesting creature. It’s a form of verb, but it functions like a noun because it refers to an action as a thing in itself.

A simple infinitive (like “to include”) is sometimes called a present infinitive, and a perfect infinitive (like “to have included”) is sometimes called a present-perfect infinitive.

But those labels are misleading because they sound like tenses. And strictly speaking, infinitives have no tense.

Infinitives do, however, take on a sense of time in relation to the main verb in the sentence.

A simple infinitive refers to an action that coincides in time with the action of the main verb. Here are some examples, with the timing indicated in brackets:

● She likes [now] to study [now].

● She liked [then] to study [then].

● She had always liked [then] to study [then].

● She would have liked [then] to study [then].

Note that the simple infinitive (“to study”) is appropriate in each sentence because the  timing of the actions referred to—the studying and the liking—are simultaneous.

A perfect infinitive, on the other hand, is appropriate when the timing of the actions is different, as in these examples:

● She appeared [then] to have studied [earlier].

● She would like [now] to have studied [then].

● She is believed [now] to have studied [then].

● She will want [later] to have studied [earlier].

● She intended [then] to have studied [at some point before now].

So in nearly all cases, the timing of the perfect infinitive and the main verb are dissimilar.

The timing matches, however, when a perfect infinitive is the subject of the sentence and the verb is what linguists call a “past counterfactual conditional”—a “would have” verb referring to an action that never happened. Here’s an example:

● “To have studied would have been wiser for her.”

Patrick J. Duffley describes the peculiar relationship between perfect infinitives and “would have” verbs in his paper “The Gerund and the to-Infinitive as Subject,” published in the Journal of English Linguistics (2003).

Here, he suggests, the perfect infinitive is used to describe “nonreal” actions “in order to situate hypothetical events before the present moment.”

We use the conjunction “if” in a similar way, he says. In effect, a perfect infinitive like “to have studied” signals a meaning similar to “if she had studied.” 

Now let’s return to Logan’s sentence on 60 Minutes: “It was a mistake to include him in our report.”

The two actions—making the mistake and including him in the report—are clearly one and the same.

They not only happened at the same time, but they’re placed in apposition (that is, they’re the equivalent of one another).

We’ve written about apposition before on our blog, including posts in 2011 and 2013.

Since for all practical purposes the two actions coincided, there was no need to use a perfect infinitive (“to have included”).

However, Logan would have been justified in using a perfect infinitive in a sentence like this: “It was wrong [in the past] to include his comments and not to have confirmed [earlier] them beforehand.”

A perfect infinitive would also have been justified if the mistake never happened: “To have included him in our report would have been wrong.”

There are a couple of other points to be made about a sentence like “It was a mistake to include him in our report.” 

Although the nominal subject is the pronoun “it,” the logical subject is the infinitive phrase “to include him in our report.”

Sometimes “it,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, is “placed before the verb as anticipatory ‘dummy’ subject, with the logical subject of the sentence as complement.”

Logan’s sentence is a perfect example. The word order places the logical subject—the infinitive phrase—in the position of complement. As a result, the slot of the subject must be filled, and “it” serves the purpose.

One might also write the sentence this way, putting the subject before the verb: “To include him in our report was a mistake.”

Many people don’t realize that an infinitive or infinitive phrase can function as a noun. As such, it can be the subject of a sentence—or, as we’ve written before on the blog, the object of a verb.

The OED notes that a sentence with the dummy subject “it” can have an infinitive phrase as its logical subject. Here are a few of the examples that Oxford cites:

“It was necessary to make a choice.” (From Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England From the Accession of James II, 1849.)

“It has been found possible to render voting perfectly secret and to provide for a scrutiny.” (From the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., 1875.)   

“It is important to get Wheatsworth Crackers with your bowl of milk or ‘half and half.’ ” (From an ad in the New York Times, 1923.)   

“It’s hard to reconcile the control-freak in his nature with the hyper-adrenalinated kid in front of the camera.” (From a London newspaper, the Independent, 1997.)

Here are a few more examples of our own (without the “dummy” subject). 

Infinitival subjects: “To do the right thing is my ambition” … “To leave was not polite.”

Infinitival objects: “My hope was to do the right thing” … “I never intended to leave.”

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