23 March, 2017
Imagine you are in an American city. While standing along the street, you hear someone asking for directions.
"What's the best way to get to the airport?"
"Continue straight and
"Thanks! I'm running late - I hope I can find a place to park. Take care!
Our report today is not about asking for traffic directions. Instead, it is about another useful subject: infinitives in everyday speech.
In this Everyday Grammar, we are going to explore infinitives and the words that they often modify.
What are infinitives?
An infinitive is the base form of the verb. Sometimes the word to appears before the base form. The word serves as a sign of the infinitive.
Unlike other verbs, infinitives do not have a tense, something to express time or the length of an action.
Infinitives can act as adjectives. In other words, they can describe or provide more information about a noun.
English has many possible noun and infinitive combinations. You would never be able to memorize all of them!
However, the good news is this: in everyday speech, only a few nouns are generally modified by infinitives.
#1 Objects – thing, stuff, a lot
Nouns that suggest objects are often modified by infinitives. The three most common examples are the nouns thing, stuff, and a lot.
All three words are inexact, so English speakers often need to use adjective phrases to clarify their meaning.
Here is an example. Imagine you hear someone say unkind words.
You could say to them, "That wasn't a nice thing to say."
The infinitive to say gives more information about the noun thing. The infinitive is acting as an adjective. It helps to define the word thing. In this situation, thing means hurtful words.
The word stuff is also unclear. Here's an example. Imagine you are invited to a party. After inviting you, your friend might say this:
"Oh! I forgot to tell you – it would be great if you brought stuff to snack on."
Here, the infinitive to snack on tells us about the noun stuff. If the sentence ended with stuff, the meaning might not be clear to the listener.
But by adding the infinitive, the meaning becomes clear: your friend is talking about food!
When taking leave of a friend, you might say "Sorry, I have to go now. I have got a lot to do!"
#2 Time, place, way
Three other nouns are commonly modified by infinitives in everyday speech. They are the words time, place and way.
Time and place have a clearer meaning than some of the other nouns we have discussed.
Most American parents have probably told their children, "It's time to go to bed." Many tired, hungry travelers have probably said, "This looks like a great place to eat!"
The word way, meaning the method in which something is done, is often used when asking questions or giving advice.
So a student might ask a teacher, "Is there a better way to write this sentence?"
Unstated and Stated Subjects
You might notice that there is something missing from our examples.
One feature of adjectival infinitives – the technical term for today's program – is that the subject is not stated.
The subject is understood; it is the object in a prepositional phrase.
This information comes from Martha Kolln, an expert on English grammar.
Consider our earlier example: "That wasn't a nice thing to say."
The understood, or unstated subject, is the word you. You is the object of an understood prepositional phrase, for you.
The entire sentence, if it had all of these elements, would read:
"That wasn't a nice thing [for you] to say."
Our other example, ""This seems like a great place to eat!" could become "This seems like a great place [for me/for us] to eat!"
Now you can understand why native speakers sometimes do not always state the subject. It makes the sentence longer, and it might not add much information.
Infinitives in conversations
Think back to the exchange you heard at the beginning of this program.
"What's the best way to get to the airport?"
"Continue straight and take the second right. It will only take about five minutes."
Thanks! I'm running late - I hope I can find a place to park!. Take care!
You will recognize that two of the nouns we discussed, way and place, were modified by infinitives.
The first speaker said, "What's the best way to get to the airport?"
The speaker could have said "What's the best way [for me] to get to the airport?" But as you have heard, English speakers will leave out the subject when the meaning is clear.
What can you do?
The nouns and infinitives we have studied today can be used in almost any situation, with the exception of stuff.
While it would be acceptable to use stuff when talking to friends or family, you would not use it when speaking with someone important, especially if you did not know the person well. Stuff is not an offensive word, but it is an informal one.
The next time you are reading, watching, or listening to something in English, try to notice the noun + infinitive structures we have discussed today.
Ask yourself how speakers use these structures in different situations. Try using these structures whenever you get the chance.
Remember: practice is the best way to improve.
And now it's time to take a break. Until next week!
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Alice Bryant.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*Conrad, Susan and Biber, Douglas. Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English. Pearson Education, 2009. Pg. 130
Words in This Story
infinitive – n. grammar the basic form of a verb
conversation – n. a spoken exchange involving two people or a small group of people
modify – v. grammar: to limit or describe the meaning of (a word or group of words)
tense – n. grammar a form of a verb that is used to show when an action happened
imprecise – n. not clear or exact
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
stuff – n. materials or things
feature – n. the structure, form or appearance of something; a quality
grammar – n. the study of words and their uses in sentences
informal – adj. lacking ceremony; of or related to familiar use