Grammar Term:
Infinitive

Infinitive is among the more common grammar terms and it’s one that you pretty much can’t avoid if you start learning a new language.
Textbooks, courses and teachers throw around the term as if it’s as self explanatory as the flush button on a toilet, and most people kind of have an idea, but I’m almost sure that it’s not as clear or obvious as the teaching scene thinks, not least because the term infinitive isn’t very intuitive at all.
That’s actually why I usually refer to it as:

dictionary form

Sure, it’s not as Latin cocktail party fancy, but at least it gives you an idea of what it does.
The infinitive is kind of the “idle” form of the verb. In our article on conjugation, we have thought of conjugating as dressing the verb up for various occasions, and the infinitive is how the verb looks in its free time, when it doesn’t have to dress up in any special way.
Well okay, in German and English and many other languages, we do use infinitives in sentences, so the verb is kind of “at work”.

  • I want to drink a coffee.
  • Ich will einen Kaffee trinken.

Here, the infinitive doesn’t have carry anything except its meaning. So it’s kind of in its jogging pants without any special markers for the person or the tense or whatever.

And this “lack” of “dress code” is actually kind of how it got its name. The term infinitive comes from Latin verb “finire” – which is also where to finish comes from. The core idea of the family is “limit, end“, and the idea of infinitive is not that it’s infinite, like it sounds… it’s simply that it is not “limited” to a person or number or tense or whatever. “free-ative”, if you will.

 

Do all languages have infinitives?

Now, we just learned that the infinitive is the basic, idle form of a verb. So of course all languages have that, right?
Well… for a long time, I thought so, but the answer is actually no. NOT all languages have infinitives.
Because even if it’s the “idle” form… it is still A form.
And in German and English, it actually does kind of have its own “dress code”.

  • trinken
  • to drink

The core of the verb is “trink/drink“. That’s enough to understand it and neither the “to” nor the “-en” add anything. Well, except of course a specific rhythm, that each language “vibes with”.

Anyway, so there are languages that do not have an infinitive and one example is Bulgarian.
And it’s not like Bulgarian has a lack of forms.

Language God: “So… how many verb forms do you want?”
Bulgarian: “Yes.”

It has all kinds of crazy forms. But it loved using its forms so much, that it also used them where other European languages use their infinitive.
Here’s how English and German would look if they used Bulgarian grammar.

  • I want to eat.
    Ich will esse.
  • He wants to eats.
    Er will isst.

Bulgarian also has plenty of prefix verbs, by the way, so if German is too easy… look no further for a challenge :).
Anyway, so the infinitive was completely neglected and it eventually disappeared… use it or lose it.
And for the dictionary… well… for the dictionary, Bulgarian just uses the “I” form.
Which is a good argument for why my calling the whole thing dictionary form actually is not just me hating on official grammar terms (which I do do). The name dictionary form actually makes sense!
Because not every language has an infinitive… but all have a dictionary form ;).

 

 Infinitive in German

 

As we already mentioned, the infinitive in German does have it’s own “dress convention”. The standard ending is “-en”, but there’s also a good amount of verbs that end in “-eln” and “-ern“, like for example “lächeln” (smile)  or “wandern” (to wander)
Those endings are actually shortened version of “-elen” and “-eren” and the origin of those is a “repetitive” variant of the verb. klingen for example is to sound, klingeln is to ring, which back when there were still bells, meant to repeatedly make the sound.

And let’s also mention the “-ieren”, which is the standard German ending for all kind of Latin based verbs like fotografieren and so on. Though technically, those are the standard -en, added to the Latin base

Anyway, that’s it with our look at the infinitive aka the dictionary form and I really hope you got some nice insights. If you have any questions just let me know in the comments and we’ll clear it up there.
And also, share with us how it works in your language, so over time we can collect a good overview :).
Have a good one!

 

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What does "to conjugate" mean

A fun look at the grammatical concept of conjugation. What it means, how it's done and whether or not we really need it.


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Harvey Wachtel
Harvey Wachtel
1 year ago

I like “dictionary form”; it’s a more precise way of saying what I refer to as “the name of the verb”. Mind if I swipe the phrase?

English grammarians have an annoying habit of conflating three verb forms that look the same in English, but may not in other languages: the base form [to which inflections are applied], the “dictionary form”, and the bare infinitive.

An intriguing glitch in English is that while every verb has a base form and a name form [always the same], not all have infinitives. Notably, the modal auxiliaries have only an invariant simple present and [except for “must”] an invariant simple past/conditional.

Until a few years ago, the South Ferry subway station in New York had its original five-car platform built in 1905 on a sharp loop. Since this was a popular destination for tourists, multi-lingual signs were posted in the trains of the #1 line warning passengers that the platform was too short for the usual ten-car trains.

The German-language panel stated “Um an der Station 《South Ferry》aussteigen zu können, müssen Sie in einem der ersten fünf Wagen fahren.” This can’t be translated into English directly because there is no infinitive for “can”; “in order to can get off” just isn’t English. We need to substitute the phrasal verb “be able to” for the defective verb “can”: “In order to be able to get off….” Same with bare infinitives: the future tense of “I must go’ can’t be “I will must go” because “must” isn’t an infinitive; it’s “I will have to go”.

Infinitives can be weird, especially when they selectively go missing as they do in English.

Alan
Alan
1 year ago

Das hungrige Einhornchen isst das Kaninchen des kleinen Mädchens!

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Do unicorns do essen or fressen?

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Love it. Now I’m picturing Junior getting scolded by mama. “No, that’s the wildflower fork. The other one is for summer meadow grass. And retract your hoof blades or you’ll scratch the good china.”

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago

So my relevant experiences are with biblical Greek and Hebrew, and those both have a bit of something to contribute…

With Koine Greek (maybe classical too?), the “lexical form” is also 1st person singular present active indicative (“I do/am doing sth.”), even though it has an infinitive (oh boy, does it) that functions very similarly to German, English, et al., although it can do some gerund-y kind of things as well.

I actually learned in Greek to refer to conjugated verbs as “finite verbs,” as opposed to infinitives and participles. The definition my Greek grammar gives for an infinitive is “an indeclinable verbal noun” – and there’s something to that (a participle is a “verbal adjective”). But there’s plenty of craziness once you get into the specifics.

In Hebrew (at least Classical Biblical Hebrew, not sure about modern Ivrit), there are two different forms called “infinitive,” but I think there’s a lot of debate about whether they should be called that or not. One functions pretty similarly to a German infinitive – you’d use it in phrases like “um … zu” constructions or “beim Essen,” that sort of thing. The other functions adverbially a lot and even sometimes as an imperative.

Anyway, in biblical Hebrew, the lexical form is just the consonants that form the verb’s root, but most typically you memorize it pronounced as the Qal (most basic conjugation) perfect 3rd person masculine singular, which is the simplest verb form. Fun times!

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

I took a look at the Wikipedia entry on infinitives in Ancient Greek….wow. Fascinatingly complex.

I’ve been reading about Navajo verbs lately and it reminds me a little bit of that. There are verb roots or stems that have a basic meaning, and the form of the stem changes depending on what mode the verb is in (an action or event that started and hasn’t been completed, has been completed, happens repeatedly, happens customarily but not always, and wishes). On top of that, there is aspect, which shows things like if something happened at a point in time, over a time span, movement, direction, attempted action, or change in state.

The leading dictionary gives several different forms for each verb. Either a form that roughly corresponds to the first person present in English, or third person present. Plus a cross-reference to an index of the stems, which can look really different.

A verb can be a grammatically complete sentence and it gets all kinds of prefixes – pronouns that show subject and object, adverbials, and a lot of other stuff. Apparently there are prefixes that mean something along the lines of “up” or “out” when they’re used literally, but they can also be used figuratively to mean that something started. There’s also a pronoun that’s used to refer to a place or space, but it can sometimes mean “trouble” or “sorrow” or be used to talk about an event.

The system is more complex than I can wrap my head around in a few hours of reading, though. So I tried my best, but no guarantees that this is 100% accurate.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Turns out I have more in common with infinitives than I thought :)

Just curious, do you have plans to make the dictionary scrollable again? I had fun stumbling across new words and browsing the usage notes. I guess that’s the digital equivalent of reading the dictionary though, so I can understand if that isn’t really a popular or practical feature.

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Flashcards would be a great addition!

Fancypantser
Fancypantser
1 year ago

Normalerweise finde ich den letzten Artikel in Archive by Date. Ich durchlese die ganze Liste!
Panik! Ich finde nicht diesen Artikel auf der Liste. Ist er in dem Worterbuch versteckt? Ich werde niemals mein Ziel erreichen, alle Artikele zu lesen, wenn du Artikel hin und her versteckst.

David_McCune
David_McCune
1 year ago

As soon as I saw the topic I was hoping that you would mention Bulgarian! I learned German first and am learning Bulgarian now, and it felt like soooo much work at first to conjugate every verb instead of using the infinitive. I guess as native speakers of “infinitive languages” we just stop thinking about the subject as soon as we finish the first verb.

Can you please elaborate on your comment about Bulgarian forgetting about their infinitive form? I’ve never read about that before.

David_McCune
David_McCune
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yeah, Bulgarian past tense is absolutely a mess for a non-native speaker. The “rules” are helpful some of the time, but then there are two past tense forms of practically every verb and some of those forms can then even be used in two different conjugations. And since it’s not spoken by as many people as German, there’s far less of a standard theory in the instructional material.

I absolutely see the parallels between the resemblance between the prefix verbs! I’m actually so happy that I read your theory of German prefixes before I started learning Bulgarian. Though, understandably, my Bulgarian wife has never thought of those verbs that way and isn’t so convinced that it’s useful. Works for me, anyway.

daschles
daschles
1 year ago

Don’t forget Chinese (my first foreign language) where there’s just one unchanging form across all uses – dictionary form, number, tense, and aspect! Of course in Chinese there are other ways of making life difficult , and certainly other ways of conveying needed bits of information about what’s going on in the sentence, but conjugation just isn’t one of them.

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hello!
Only one typo :)
“not every language have an infinitive” (not every language has an infinitive)

Thanks for Grammay 3!
Actually, it also cleared up my confusion regarding klingen and klingeln, I never quite understood what the difference was ;)
Bis bald!

kalamazoo
kalamazoo
1 year ago
Reply to  Elsa

One more typo: Here’s how English and German would look if it used Bulgarian grammar. Should be “they.”

peeet
peeet
1 year ago

Gramm’s Epi Three
among us are ye?
my self’d be happy
do check out the chappy
where we examine
what the infinitive could be

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It is also way beyond my English and English is my mother tongue

Liz
Liz
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Loved the opening poem. When I was a kid, way before I started learning a language other than English, I always wondered if words rhymed in other languages. But yes, of course they do. Your blog is just so informative. I love hearing about the history of words, how they are used, and their original meanings. Please don’t stop writing your insightful posts.



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