Introduction to Infinitive Phrases

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     An infinitive is a phrase consisting of "to" plus the uninflected form of a verb: "to be," "to sniff," "to return." It is called an "infinitive" because it does not express any finite, specific tense, such as the past perfect or the present. It does have a rather vague past form--"to have eaten," "to have lived"--but the real work of specifying time is done by the verbs of a sentence, which precisely express many tenses. Infinitives do not need to, for they belong to phrases, where time distinctions are less important.
     Infinitive phrases offer a compact way to include concepts within the structure of a fairly simple sentence. Consider how much shorter the infinitive version of the following idea is than the first version, which uses two clauses:

    Everyone warned the coal-miner's daughter that she should never dream of achieving fame.
    Everyone warned the coal-miner's daughter never to dream of achieving fame.

Readers have no trouble knowing who is not to dream, even though "she" is not included. The fact that an infinitive's notional subject can be so easily understood is why it is such a useful shorthand device. It is so useful that sometimes we can sound nonstandard if we don't use it.

    Nonstandard: Harry needs that he should know his score.
    Standard: Harry needs to know his score.

Even with a stated subject, an infinitive phrase is still more compact and idiomatic than alternative structures.

    Nonstandard: You want that I should tell you about the pictures?
    Standard: You want me to tell you about the pictures?

Notice that the subject of an infinitive is in the objective case (me, not I; him, not he; her, not she; them, not they).