Making the choice between infinitives and gerunds – III

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

In the second part of this discussion last week, we saw that the following sentence with the full infinitive phrase “to run away” doesn’t sound right: “Rather than to run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” However, it reads perfectly well when that full infinitive phrase is changed to its bare infinitive form: “Rather than run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.”

So the question is: Are there hard-and-fast rules for using the full infinitive or the bare infinitive? There are actually none; all that can really be said is that in general, the primary determining factor is the operative verb of the sentence. Indeed, we’ll only find out which of them works—or works best—by first using the full infinitive by default. When it doesn’t work, the bare infinitive form usually will—unless, as we saw in our previous discussions, it’s only the infinitive’s gerund equivalent that can do the job.

At this point, we can now categorically answer the original question of Iran-based Forum member Farhad H. that launched this discussion: It’s in the nature of English that when an infinitive or infinitive phrase is preceded by the adverbs “rather,” “better,” and “had better” or by the prepositions “except,” “but,” “save” (in the sense of “except”), and “than,” it’s highly advisable to use the bare infinitive in the sentence.

Let’s try out those specific instances that require the bare infinitive: “We would rather commute than drive at this hour.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We would rather to commute than to drive at this hour.”) “With the mess you’re in, you had better hire a lawyer.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “With the mess you’re in, you had better to hire a lawyer.”) “We tried everything except beg.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “We tried everything except to beg.”) “They did nothing but complain.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “They did nothing but to complain.”)

As a rule, of course, the verb auxiliaries “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” and “must” should always be followed by a bare infinitive: “I shall scold them.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I shall to scold them.”) “We may go there tonight.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We may to go there tonight.”) “You must find her at once.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “You must to find her at once.”)

Now, when the operative verb is a perception verb like “see,” “feel,” “hear,” or “watch” and it’s followed by an object, the object complement should be in the bare infinitive form for the sentence to work properly: “We watched him perform the role and we saw him bungle it so badly.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We watched him to perform the role and we saw him to bungle it so badly.”) “I heard her scream at a fellow justice during a full session.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I heard her to scream at a fellow justice during a full session.”)

A bare infinitive is likewise needed as object complement when the operative verb is the helping verb “let” or “make” followed by an object: “Let me call you sweetheart.”

(Faulty with full infinitive: “Let me to call you sweetheart.”) “She always makes me feel brand new.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “She always makes me to feel brand new.”)

The helping verb “help” itself, however, can take either a full infinitive or a bare infinitive as object complement. The sentence sounds formal with the full infinitive: “She helped them to mount the coup d’etat.” It’s relaxed, informal-sounding with the bare infinitive: “She helped them mount the coup d’etat.”

Always remember, though, that all of these uses of the bare infinitive should be treated as exceptions to the general rule. When in doubt, use the full infinitive first to see if the sentence will work properly.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at Follow me at @J8Carillo.


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