What Are Verbal Nouns (Infinitives)? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 17, 2023

Are you interested in learning about the verbal nouns known as infinitives? If so, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll learn all you need to know about infinitives and how to use them in your sentences.

In short:

  • Infinitive verbal nouns are words that look like the infinitive form of a verb but that function as a noun.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Verbal Nouns (Infinitives)?

Verbal nouns—also known as verbals—are words that look like verbs but act as different parts of speech (noun, adjective, or adverb).

There are three types:

  • participles
  • gerunds
  • infinitives

In this article, we're going to focus on infinitives as verbals, but it's good to know there are other types too. Basically, whenever you see something that looks like a verb acting as a different part of speech, that's a verbal.

Infinitives are formed with the word 'to' and the root form of a verb, or in other words, the unconjugated form of a verb. It looks exactly the same as the present indefinite form of a verb.

For example:

to eat

to study

to swim

to sleep

to ride

Using Infinitives in a Sentence

Let's learn how to use infinitives in a sentence and what that might look like for different parts of speech. We'll start with noun infinitives.

  • Nouns are naming words that you can use to refer to a person, place, or thing.
  • Infinitives that function as nouns do the same thing.

Here is an example:

To wait seems like a waste of time if we aren't even sure he's coming. 

'To wait' is the infinitive functioning as a noun in this sentence. It's also the subject of the sentence.

Here's another example:

We wanted to go on vacation

The infinitive verbal noun 'to go' is the sentence's direct object in this example.

Her biggest dream is to learn English.

The infinitive verbal noun 'to learn' is the subject complement in the above example.

  • Infinitive verbals can also function as adjectives. As a reminder, an adjective can modify a noun or a pronoun or complement a linking verb.

Let's look at some examples of infinitive verbals that do that.

There's never been a better time to get on the property ladder.

He didn't have the courage to say no.

I need my best friend to cheer me on.

And finally, infinitive verbals can also be adverbs; in other words, they can modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.

For example:

We'll need you in the team to stand a chance.

You must play the game to win.

I tried to warn him but he wouldn't listen.

Split Infinitives

In a sentence where the word 'to' is separated from the root form of the verb, this is called a 'split infinitive.' Often, it's an adverb that separates them.

Here are some examples:

To really know someone, look into their eyes.

We must listen carefully to fully understand the concept.

They tried to sneakily walk past their mom in the kitchen. 

Whether or not it's okay to split infinitives is much debated. Some think it's totally fine, and others see it as a complete aberration of English grammar. If you're in doubt, it's always best not to split them, especially considering they can lead to ambiguity about which word they modify.

Infinitive Phrase vs Prepositional Phrase

An infinitive phrase is a chunk of a sentence containing an infinitive and its complements and/or modifiers.

For instance:

We like to eat berries.

'To take' is the infinitive, and 'to eat berries' is the infinitive phrase. Just like a simple infinitive, an infinitive phrase can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb. In the above sentence, it serves as a noun. Case in point, you could swap the entire phrase for a noun, for example, 'We like pencils.'

Here's an example of an infinitive phrase that functions as an adjective:

I need a warm coat to wear in the winter.

'To wear in the winter' is the infinitive phrase that serves as an adjective for the noun 'coat.'

Finally, here's an infinitive phrase that functions as an adverb:

I came to tell you goodbye.

  • Be careful not to confuse an infinitive phrase for a prepositional phrase. 

In a prepositional phrase, the "head word" of the phrase is a preposition. With the word 'to' being a preposition, you'll often find prepositional phrases beginning with 'to.' This means they look just like an infinitive phrase.

Here are some examples:

I've just been to the new cafe.

Can you deliver it to this address?

We've never spoken to him

The best way to tell the difference is to look for that infinitive after the word 'to.' If you don't see one, it's probably a prepositional phrase.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on infinitive verbal nouns. I hope you found it helpful and that it answered any questions you might have about them.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • There are three kinds of verbal nouns: participles, gerunds, and infinitives.
  • Infinitives are made with the word 'to' + the base form of a verb.
  • They can function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs and be a sentence's subject, object, or complement.
  • Don't confuse infinitive phrases with prepositional phrases.

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more like this in our Grammar Book. It's an online database of grammar articles like this one, and it's completely free.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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