Grammar Guide: Using Bare Infinitives

Wednesday, November 62 min read

Among the many tricky features of the English language is the bare infinitive. Infinitives are the basic forms of verbs. You might see them paired with the preposition "to" — to sit, to eat, to think — or standing alone. When the infinitive isn’t partnered with "to," it’s called a bare infinitive.

When Can You Use a Bare Infinitive?

A tricky thing about bare infinitives — sometimes called zero infinitives — is that there isn’t a single hard and fast rule for them.

Let's take a look at the parts of speech and some examples you can use to remember when and where to use bare infinitives. We’ve italicized the bare infinitives in these examples just to make things clear. We've also included how the sentence would look if you didn't use a bare infinitive — in some cases, it's downright cringeworthy.  

With auxiliaries (can, should, would, might)

You should wait for the next bus. (NOT: You should to wait for the next bus.)

I would walk instead. (NOT: I would to walk instead.)

After perception verbs (see, hear, feel)

I heard him come in this morning. (NOT: I heard him to come in this morning.)

She saw them leave. (NOT: She saw them to leave.)

After "make" or "let"

They made him read the passage again. (NOT: They made him to read the passage again.)

She let him tell the story. (NOT: She let him to tell the story.)

After "had better"

You had better be careful! (NOT: You had better to be careful!)

After "why"

Why buy this one when that one is cheaper? (NOT: Why to buy this one when that one is cheaper?)

How Do I Remember the Rules?

Did you find a pattern in the rules? Neither did we. You’ll probably need some mnemonics to remember all of the applications for bare infinitives if you're really dedicated to learning them.

Modals will cover a lot of uses of a bare infinitive. A "modal" is a word or phrase that expresses likelihood or intention. "Can," "could," "may," "might," "must," "will," "would," "shall," "should," "ought to," and "had better" are all modals. If a modal appears before the verb, use a bare infinitive.

"Make," "let," "have," and other causative verbs are also used with bare infinitives. If the initial verb causes the next one — as in, "He made me do it" — then you need a bare infinitive.

Bare infinitives can be frustrating for English learners. There’s no single rule or mnemonic to help with all of the different applications, but you’ll notice them as you use them. Test out sentences including "to" or leaving it out if you’re confused.

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