Grammar Usage

Infinitive possibilities

Q: I teach business communications and I’ve always taught my students that infinitives are not verbs. But what about a sentence like “I am going to bake a cake”? Isn’t that the same as saying “I will bake a cake”? I am sitting with three English teachers pondering this question.

A: An infinitive is indeed a verb—a verb in its simplest form.

Infinitives often appear as parts of verb phrases, like the ones you mention: “will bake” and “going to bake.” In both phrases, “bake” is an infinitive.

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote earlier this year about the use of “going to” in the sense of “will.”

As we said then, the most common way of expressing a future action is by using “will” plus an infinitive (“I will study tomorrow”).

But an alternative method has been around since the 1400s—the use of “be going to” plus an infinitive (“I am going to study tomorrow”).

The most obvious difference between the two is that “will” is followed by a bare infinitive (“study”) while “be going” is followed by the preposition “to” plus the infinitive.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the use of “going to” in this sense. It comes from The Revelation to the Monk of Evesham (1482):

“Thys onhappy sowle … was goyng to be broughte into helle for the synne and onleful lustys of her body.”

Originally, the OED says, this use of “going to” meant “on the way to, preparing or tending to.”

But the dictionary says the construction is “now used as a more colloquial synonym of about to, in the auxiliaries of idiomatic complex verb phrases expressing immediate or near futurity.”

(Note that phrase, “immediate or near futurity.” When you say, “I will bake a cake,” you could be speaking of some remote event. But when you say, “I am going to bake a cake,” or “I’m about to bake a cake,” you’re speaking of something more immediate.)

Thus, “am going to bake” is what the OED would call an idiomatic complex verb phrase. Again, the infinitive here is “bake,” and “going to” functions as an auxiliary.

Infinitives work in many different kinds of verb phrases. For instance, it often happens that one verb is followed by a second in the infinitive. We’ve written about this subject before on the blog, but it bears repeating because infinitives are so widely misunderstood.

Many people don’t realize that in a sentence like “I saw her fall,” the verb “fall” is in the infinitive. In English, this is a very common pattern, especially when the first verb is one involving sensory perception (“see,” “feel,” “hear”).

Here are a few examples of the kinds of verbs that are often paired with infinitives (the infinitives are underlined):

“I helped her move” … “They saw us fight” … “We felt it shake” … “He heard her sing” … “You need not worry” … “Dare we ask?” … “I would rather die” … “We will let it rest” … “Let there be light.”

In addition, the auxiliary “do” is often used with an infinitive to form a question: “Do you smoke?” … “Did they drive?”

And the modal auxiliary verbs (“can,” “may,” “must,” etc.) take infinitives as their complements: “She may smoke” [or “May she smoke?”] … “We must leave” [or “Must we leave?”].

(We’ve had several postings on the blog about modal auxiliaries, including one earlier this month.)

In all of these cases, the second verb is in the infinitive because it needs no inflection. (An inflected verb changes in form to indicate number, tense, and so on.)

Some people don’t recognize these verb forms as infinitives because they expect infinitives to be preceded by “to.” As you can see, that’s often not the case.

Even when the “to” is present, it’s not actually part of the infinitive. It’s a prepositional marker indicating that the infinitive is coming up.

So you can’t “split” an infinitive, no matter what anyone tells you. We’ve written before on the blog about the “split infinitive” myth.

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