Sunday, October 10, 2010

To Infinitives and Beyond: the Infinitive Mood

Infinitives are interesting creatures, grammatically. Though they look like verbs they act like nouns. I’d like to take you through a little look at them and the infinitive mood in general.

Infinitives live as symbiotic verbs, unable to exist on their own in sentences. They rely on other verbs to give them context and sense. You can use them in place of subjects, as in the famous, "To err is human," or employ them as objects, as I replaced the direct object of "like" in the third sentence of my first paragraph.

The term infinitive indicates merely the "infinite" form of a verb, on that has no real sense of time, number, or person. Most forms add "to" to the first-person present form of the verb. As such you can write that Julie wanted to dance on the table and everyone will know what you meant. (No, not that she’s a lush, you cruel thing.)

But though "wanted" gives you a sense of when Julie had that desire, "to dance" is timeless. It indicates nothing about whether that dancing was imminent or whether it was some long-held wish that she intended to fulfill some day, or if she wanted to be joined by a partner or fifteen friends.

Not every infinitive moves a sentence to the infinitive mood. So what does this mean for mood, you may well ask. In most cases the author has relocated the action of the sentence in the infinitive mood to the infinitive itself and replaced it with a more-ephemeral verb like want, wish, or like. You can go all-out and write, "To hope for progress is to express faith in humanity." You can’t get less specific about the subject than that. And, as a rule, your readers couldn’t care less about it, either.

While the occasional sentence in the infinitive mood brings contrast to a piece (note that the "to" here is a preposition and not the harbinger of an infinitive), too many of them create stilted prose that distances your reader from both the action and the characters about whom you are writing. Save the infinitives for clauses, instead, and keep your writing active and engaging. "Though all she’d wanted was to dance on the table, Julie plunged into the fray and swung her pointy boots to an altogether different effect." Go get ‘em, Julie!