26 October, 2017
The 1977 movie Star Wars is an American classic, with many memorable lines and characters. At one point in the film, the character C-3PO says the following words:
"We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life."
Today, we are going to explore that statement. We are not talking about the meaning behind the statement. Instead, we will study the sentence's grammar.
In particular, we are going to explore verb + infinitive combinations. "Seem to be" -- the words you heard in the movie -- is one such example.
Let's begin with some definitions.
Infinitives and Gerunds
An infinitive is the basic form of the verb. Sometimes it has the word "to" in front of it. In the sentence "I like to study grammar," the words "to study" are an infinitive.
A gerund is the form of a verb that ends in –ing. It acts like a noun. For example, in the sentence "Learning English is fun," the word "learning" is a gerund.
Why are we talking about infinitives and gerunds?
Some verbs can be followed by an infinitive or a gerund. Knowing when to use an infinitive and when to use a gerund is difficult. However, the good news is this: verb + infinitive combinations are more common than verb + gerund combinations.*
Moreover, in everyday speech, verbs from four basic groups are often followed by infinitives. These basic patterns can help you learn the hundreds of specific verb + infinitive combinations.
We will now give you examples of three of these basic meaning groups. We will tell you the most common verbs from these groups that you will hear in everyday speech. We will also give you famous examples from American popular culture.
#1 Expressing want or need
Infinitives commonly follow verbs that express want or need. Common examples include the verbs want, like, hope, need and wish.
What do these verb + infinitive combinations sound like in everyday situations? Let's listen to the following conversation:
1: Do you want to see a movie this afternoon?
2: I would like to see a movie, but I don't want to be indoors this afternoon – it's so beautiful outside.
1: How about this evening?
2: That sounds great. I can't stay up late, though, because I need to get up early tomorrow morning.
In the conversation, you heard several examples of verb + an infinitive: "want to see," "like to be," and "need to get up."
American popular culture also gives you more examples of how these structures sound. The 1997 romantic comedy film As Good As It Gets gives you one example:
"You make me want to be a better man."
Here, actor Jack Nicholson uses the infinitive "to be" after the verb "want."
#2 Expressing Effort
Infinitives often follow verbs that suggest effort. Common examples include the verbs attempt, fail, manage and try.
You can hear examples of these structures in the following conversation about school. Imagine you hear two students speaking with each other. One student did well on a test, and the other student did not do very well:
1: I managed to get an A on the test!
2. Well, I tried to pass the test...
1: Oh! I'm sorry, you didn't do well?
2: Don't worry about it – I'll do better next time. Hey, do you want to play videogames tomorrow?
Here, the speakers used many past tense verbs, "managed" and "tried," for example. Even though the speakers used the past tense, they still used infinitives after the main verb.
We hope you do not play videogames instead of studying!
American popular culture has many examples of try + an infinitive. Consider these lines from the classic American horror film, The Silence of the Lambs. Here, the fictional Dr. Lecter talks about killing a person:
"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."
In the example, Dr. Lecter uses the infinitive "to test" after the verb "tried."
#3 "Seem" verbs
Infinitives also often follow verbs that are similar to the verb "seem." Common examples include the verbs seem, appear, and tend.
Let's listen to how speakers use these verbs in an everyday situation. Imagine a happy spouse returns home from a day at the office:
1: You seem to be happy with yourself!
2: I tend to smile when I get good news...
1: Really? What's the news?
2: I got a promotion!
You just heard two examples of a verb + infinitive combination: "seem to be" and "tend to smile."
You might have also noticed that the words from the film Star Wars also fit into this group:
"We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life."
What can you do?
The next time you are watching TV or speaking with an American, try to listen for examples of verb + infinitive. Ask yourself the basic meaning of the verb. Does it fit into one of the groups we talked about today?
Gerunds and infinitives are difficult to learn. But with study and practice, you will master them.
How can you do this? Try to use them as often as you can.
I'm Jill Robbins.
And I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber "Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English" Pearson Education. 2009. P.97
Words in This Story
lot in life – expression a person's situation in life especially as decided by chance
combination – n. a result or product of combining two or more things or people
conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people: the act of talking in an informal way
manage – v. to succeed in doing (something)
Chianti – n. a dry red wine from Italy
promotion – n. the act of moving someone to a higher or more important position or rank in an organization