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Infinitives as Subjects

Refer to activities, quotes and definitions


"To be, or not to be,
that is the question."

Subject—An Infinitive clause vs. A Gerund Clause


An infinitive clause¹ (also called a nonfinite² infinitival clause) allows us to repackage information, more than a noun phrase can contain, and place it in the subject or object position of a clause. In the subject position, an infinitive clause is usually followed by some form of be or a static verb. It is uncommon to begin a clause with an infinitive clause, with a few exceptions such as dictionary definitions, quotes and poetic speech.


~1a.To start a sentence with an infinitive





~2a. To speak five languages well



may be

an advantage.

~3a.To be around her all day




would be



A gerund clause (also called a nonfinite gerundial clause) is more commonly used to repackage lengthy information into the subject of a clause. In most cases, gerund or infinitive clauses as subjects mean the same, but sometimes there is a slight difference in meaning. An infinitive may suggest a future, predicted or imagined activity while a gerund suggests an ongoing, existing, habitual activity.  Compare 2a. vs. 2b. or 3a. vs. 3b.


1b.Starting a sentence with a gerund





2b. Speaking five languages well



may be

an advantage.

3b. Being around her all day




would be



*not used / ~not  preferred word choice, borderline or special usage

Infinitive phrase vs. infinitive clause — An infinitive structure, in traditional grammar, is called an infinitive phrase because it can not stand alone as a sentence (i.e., it does not have a subject and predicate). In contrast, in linguistic description, it is called an infinitival nonfinite clause because it typically does not have a subject and its verb form is not inflected for person, number or tense; also, the term "phrase" is reserved for word groups such as noun phrase, verb phrase, adjective phrase, verb phrase, etc. See Phrases.

A nonfinite clause is a "reduced clause": the verb is not marked for tense and the subject is often omitted. This allows us to refer to an activity in a general way rather than a specific way. Nonfinite clauses are infinitival, gerundial or past participial. See Nonfinite Clause or Primary / Secondary Verbs.

³ To be, an imagined situation, sounds awkward with becomes which expresses an existing state or progressively changing situation.

Static verbs  (stative verbs, "states of being") include be, seem, appear, act, become, sound, look, feels, taste, etc.

Also see Grammar Notes for grammar terms, Nonfinite Clauses (gerundial, infinitival, past participial).







Infinitive Clause

It as the subject placeholder



Initial vs. Final Placement with "It"


An infinitive or an infinitival clause can be the subject of the clause; however, speakers tend to place longer content toward the end of the sentence. The sentences below sound poetic (used for rhythm or to create interest). In everyday speech, they are reworded with it.


To travel   


exciting.   (adjective) 

To explore the Web


entertaining. (adjective) 

To speak five languages well

would be 


To be around her all day



To travel to New York


four hours.


Placing It at the beginning of the sentence allows repositioning of "heavier content" to the end of the sentence. It is often called a "dummy pronoun" (has no particular meaning) and serves as the subject placeholder for the content that has been displaced to the end of the clause.



is   exciting

to travel.  


is   entertaining

to explore the Web.    


would be ideal

to speak five languages well.


is tiring

to be around her all day.


takes (four hours)¹

to travel to New York.


It as the subject places emphasis on the content immediately following: the speaker's opinion: exciting, entertaining, ideal, tiring, etc.   Also see It as Subj Placeholder.

¹ It takes four hours to travel to New York. See  "It takes" + Infinitive.

See Grammar Notes for word category and word function abbreviations.






Infinitive Clause

Including a nonfinite clause with its own subject



Initial vs. Final Placement


The subject of an infinitive clause is expressed as [for + noun] (accusative pronoun). The person mentioned after the subordinator for is the "doer" of the activity in the infinitive clause.


For us to travel   

 is   exciting.   (adjective) 

For them to browse the Web

 is   entertaining. (adjective) 

For me to speak five languages well.

would be  ideal.

For him to be around her all day.

becomes  tiring.

For Edward to commute to New York  

takes  three hours.


More commonly, the infinitive clause (and its subject) is moved to the end of the clause. The pronoun It is the placeholder for the displaced clause.                                                                    


It is exciting

for us to travel.  

It is entertaining

for them to browse the Web.    

It would be ideal

for me to speak five languages well.

It is tiring

for him to be around her all day.

It takes three hours

for Edward to commune to New York.


The subject of an infinitive clause is expressed as [for + noun] (accusative pronoun).  Also see (Huddleston 1178)

V – verb; PRN – pronoun; ADJ – adjective; PART – participial adjective; INFIN – infinitive; CLS –clause





Initial Infinitive Uses

Quotes and Definitions



Infinitives in quotes and definitions


Infinitives are commonly used in quotes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

To know you is to love you.

To try and fail is better than to have never tried at all.

To doubt is intensely engrossing.

To be on the alert is to live.

To be lulled into security is to die. —Oscar Wilde

To understand one woman is not necessarily to understand any other woman.


Infinitives commonly occur in dictionary definitions.  This dates back to a time when grammarians likened the English infinitive (to + base form) to Latin and French language infinitives (one inflected word). 


1. To perceive directly; grasp in the mind with clarity or certainty. 2. To regard as true beyond doubt: "I know she won't fail." 3. To have a practical understanding of, as through experience; be skilled in: "knows how to cook." 4. To have fixed in the mind: "knows her Latin verbs." 5. To have experience of: "a black stubble that had known no razor"-- ;William Faulkner 6. To be acquainted with: "He doesn't know his neighbors." 7. To be able to distinguish; recognize as distinct: "knows right from wrong." 8. To discern the character or nature of: "knew him for a liar." 9. Archaic To have sexual intercourse with.







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Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description



Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions


In traditional grammar, the infinitive is described as a verbal-noun.  The infinitive form is  to + verb. In formal usage, one never spits an infinitive, nor does one leave "to" at the end of a sentence — an issue with this two-word verbal form. This origin of this description dates back to a time when grammarians likened English verbs to French and Latin verbs. 

To the Infinitival Marker   "Traditional grammar treats [to give] as a form of of the lexeme give, as if it were an inflectional prefix, comparable to the inflectional suffix that marks the infinitive in such languages as Latin and French.  This is quite inappropriate for English.  The evidence [below right

] shows that to is not syntactically in construction with the verb base, let alone morphologically bound to it." (Huddleston 1183-4)

Also see Azar 14-6.

In current grammar, the infinitive is the "plain form" (base verb form).  The subordinator to often, but not always, occurs with the plain form, with some exceptions being: dare, need, help, can, may, will, should, would, etc.

In modern linguistics, the particle to is described as a subordinator.  The infinitive includes to + "plain form"  (base verb form).  "It is important  that to enters into construction with a VP [verb phrase] not just a verb."(Huddleston 1183-7) Also see the note on "Split-infinitives".  (There's nothing to split!)  

Also see  Huddleston and Pullum's "A  Student's Introduction to English Grammar" p. 31 – 37; 206, 212; Swan 279-281; Biber 9.4, Huddleston 14 §1.4.


traditional diagram: To start a sentence with an infinitive is uncommon

tree diagram

Word Categories: N – Noun; V – Verb; Aux – Auxiliary; Adj – Adjective; Adv – Adverb; P –Preposition; Det –Determiner.

Phrasal Categories: NP – Noun Phrase; VP – Verb Phrase; AdjP – Adjective Phrase; AdvP – Adverb Phrase; PP – Prepositional Phrase; DP – Determinative Phrase.

Clausal Categories: Cls – clause; F – finite clause; NF – nonfinite clause (Ger – gerund; Inf – infinitive; PPart – past participle).

Word Functions: Subj – subject; Pred – predicate/predicator; Compcomplement: elements required by an expression to complete its meaning (DO – direct object; IO – indirect object);  Adjunctadjunct: elements not required by an expression to complete its meaning (Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator); Suplsupplement: a clause or phrase added onto a clause that is not closely related to the central thought or structure of the main clause.


Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. "Common Verbs Followed by Infinitives." Understanding and Using English Grammar, 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Biber, Douglas, and Stig Johansson, et al. "Infinitive Clauses." Longman Grammar Of Spoken And Written English, Pearson Education, 1999.
  • Huddleston, Rodney and Geoffrey K. Pullum. "The structure of infinitivals." The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • ——— A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Cambridge UP, 2005.
  • Pullum, Geoffrey. "Non-finite Clauses." Linguistics and English Language, U of Edinburgh, 1 Nov 2012,
  • Swan, Michael. "283 Infinitives (5): I want you to listen." Practical English Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.
  • "Sentence diagram: The Reed Kellogg System." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Apr. 2016.





Practice 1

Sayings and Quotes



Decide whether the quote can be restated with gerunds.

  1. Edit the sentence.. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 1-12" button.


INF: To live is to learn.

INF: To know is to care.

INF:   To know what we know and to know what we do not know – that is understanding.

INF:   To see is to believe.

INF:  To think something does not cause as much trouble as to say something.

INF:    To be successful in love is to be sucessful in life.

INF:  To give lip service to someone requires little effort.

INF:   To know all is to forgive all.

INF:   To stumble once is better than to always be tottering.

INF:   To forgive is heavenly, to forget is divine.

INF:   To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything.

INF:   To worry is a waste of time.


lip service (N) – to say what others want to hear

stumble (V) – lose one's balance and fall

tottering (Adj) – being about to fall; being unsteady on one's feet

divine (Adj) – coming from or relating to God or a god





Practice 2

Muhammad Ali  (1942 – 2016)


Muhammad Ali


Read for Errors

To say that he was a giant among men would not be an exaggeration. The former heavyweight champion, Muhammed Ali, was one of the most revered figures on Earth, inspiring passionate feelings more than 30 years after his final appearance in the boxing ring, and more than 50 years after winning an Olympic gold medal.   To hear him speak was entertaining.  To watch his lightning fast punches and nimble foot work was a sight to behold.  To see him fight the effects of Parkinson's disease was inspiring.

The disease slowly muted his voice and caused him to move slowly. It was difficult for him to perform simple acts because of the tremors. His days were spent mostly in a chair. His once-dazzling smile became just a memory.  And yet, he was a hero to many, an inspirational icon. Muhammad Ali meant different things to different people, a towering figure to nearly all. "Muhammad Ali is the proof that once there were giants in this land," declared former heavyweight champion George Foreman.

a sight to behold – an unforgettable experience

effects (N) – results, symptoms of the disease

exaggeration (N) – state that something is bigger or grander than it truly is

muted – quieted

nimble – quick, graceful, agile

revered (Adj) – highly regarded

tremors (N) – shaking

towering (Adj) – tall, high, large




Answer the questions regarding wording (phrasing).

  1. Select your response.
  2. Read the feedback.


What is a good reason for beginning the paragraph with an infinitive?
⇒ To say that he was a giant among men would not be an exaggeration.

Which wording is a good choice for the paragraph above?
⇒ To hear him speak was entertaining.

Which  wording is best for the paragraph above.
⇒ It was difficult for him to perform simple acts because of the tremors.

Who is the subject, the person "saying", in this sentence?
⇒ To say that he was a giant among men would not be an exaggeration.

(in general)