The form and uses of the perfect infinitive


TWO important grammatical forms that I don’t recall having ever taken up in this column are the perfect infinitive and the perfect gerund. I was asked about their usage sometime in 2011 but having been so pressed for time when I wrote my reply, I managed to come up in Jose Carillo’s English Forum with what looks to me now as a bare-bones discussion of only two special applications of the two forms. To make up for that less than adequate treatment, I will discuss the perfect infinitive and the perfect gerund more comprehensively this time.

Let’s take up the perfect infinitive first.

The perfect infinitive has this form: “to have + the past participle or ‘-ed’ form of the verb,” as in the sentence “She declared with great fervor to have met all the qualifications required of presidential candidates, but that declaration has been challenged in court.” Working with a main verb in the sentence (“declared” in the example given), the perfect infinitive (“to have met”) often refers to things that might have happened in the past. However, the perfect infinitive form can also be used to refer to an action that will be completed at some point in the future, as in “The company hopes with great expectations to have finished its restructuring by April.”

We can see that this form differs from the simple infinitive that we are more familiar with, as in the sentence “They want her to drop her candidacy.” In such sentences, the action in the simple infinitive (“to drop” in the example given) coincides in time or is simultaneous with the action of the main verb (“want”).

Sentences that use the perfect infinitive often mean the same thing as their perfect tense or past tense equivalent. Take a look at these examples: “He is ecstatic to have attained his quarterly sales quota.” (“He is ecstatic that he has attained his quarterly sales quota.”) “She regrets to have turned down his marriage proposal.” (‘She regrets that she had turned down his marriage proposal.”) “The board seems to have lost confidence in you.” (It seems that the board has lost confidence in you.”)

The perfect infinitive can also be used in a clause with a verb that has no subject to refer to events that did happen in the past or to events that might have happened but didn’t happen, as in these examples: “To have earned the highest honors in class despite being blind was an outstanding feat.” (The blind student did get the highest honors.) “To have won the debating championship would have been great, but even landing third runnerup was a great consolation.” (The debater lost the championship.)

Now let’s take a look at the usage of the perfect infinitive “to have been,” which as I mentioned earlier I had taken up briefly in the Forum in 2011. This special form of the perfect infinitive has two applications, namely:

1. As a noun form to denote a hypothetical state or condition in the past, or a state or condition in the past that has been determined to be true only now: “To have been his associate would have boosted her political career.” (as the subject of the sentence) “It’s great imagining to have been her costar in that movie.” (as complement) “The legislator was found to have been unqualified for public office in the first place.” (as adverbial modifier).

2. As a noun form to denote a state or action in the past that is no longer subsisting (used with the passive form of such telling verbs as “say,” “believe,” “consider,” “assume,” “suppose,” and “think”): “He is reputed to have been an outstanding student leader in the 1960s.” “She is widely thought to have been the most beautiful woman of her time.”

(Next week: The perfect gerund)

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