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My owner is having trouble with infinitives. Well, he has trouble with all sorts of things, doesn't he? Here are some of his thoughts:

To boldy go...Edit

We use the infinitive a lot in English and we think it is rather simple. The chief complication comes from the fact that we sometimes use the marker to and sometimes we don't. The to gives rise to the concept of the "split infinitive", which I think is erroneous. What is wrong with slipping an adverb in between to and the infinitive? Mind you, I tend not to use the "split infinitive" (perhaps you noticed me avoiding it there), but I cannot see that it is ungrammatical. Back in the 60s to boldly go seemed silly, not wrong. It wasn't what we said. To go boldly where no man has gone before would have sounded more normal and Boldly to go where no man went before would have sounded grander (and been an iambic pentameter with rhythmic variation in the first foot).[1]

  1. Incidentally, I often wondered why they didn't say To boldly go where no man went before, which would have been a perfect iambic pentameter. Maybe the Canadian William Shatner, who voiced the words for the first version of Star Trek, objected to the American tense usage, or perhaps the producer or director didn't want it to sound like a line of verse. Too trite, perhaps?

Not so straightforwardEdit

In English the infinitive seems very neutral, although we do sometimes give it an element of tense: She is thought to be (whatever) can be moved into the past as She is thought to have been (whatever), if the subject is no longer with us. However, in Portuguese and Galician the infinitive can be inflected for person and number, and this seems odd to English speakers. In Spanish and some other languages, the infinitive can take a subject.

Romanian does some very odd things. This is perhaps not surprising, as it developed in isolation from other Romance languages. Some Latin words survive unchanged or little changed and a lot of infinitives would be strangely familiar to anyone who has studied Latin. Adorare survives unchanged, scribere has lost its b, so appears as scriere, and ponere has changed o to u and turns up as punere, but they all mean essentially the same as they always did. The surprising thing is that these "long infinitives" are used only as verbal nouns. The gerund has survived, but is used as a verbal adjective. When used after a verb the infinitive takes the "short" form (with the -re lopped off), which is always preceded by the marker a. Now this is quite easy to wrap your mind round, but there is another twist.

In Modern Greek the infinitive has been replaced by a subordinate clause. This has also happened in Bulgarian and Macedonian, neighbouring languages, but of a different group, and something similar is happening in Serbian and also in the Albanian languages, a third group. Romanian, which belongs to a fourth group, is also adopting this practice, and so the short infinitive is being replaced by a clause with and the subjunctive. So instead of a adora, a scrie and a pune, people say sǎ ador, sǎ scriu and sǎ pun, or whatever the appropriate form of the subjunctive is. Maybe, at some point in the future, the clauses will come to be regarded as inflected infinitives, especially if the subjunctive disappears in other uses.

Romanian errorsEdit

One of my Romanian correspondents writes quite good English (a lot better than my Romanian!), always comprehensible, but often not idiomatic. Many Romanians make little mistakes which are not a problem for English speakers who have learnt French, e.g. "You have right." or "I have 24 years." My correspondent has clearly been taught that the infinitive is widely used in English, but not that modal verbs have no infinitive. So she blithely uses to can in the sense of to be able to. Not surprising, as in Romanian a putea[1] is perfectly all right. I thought I had better point out that to can means to put food in a can. I went on to mention the periphrastic to be able to, but pointed out that this was rather formal and that we would tend to use a clause. So, where she said she had saved some money "to can buy some cakes for my friends on my birthday", she could have said "so I can buy some cakes..."

  1. This is derived from Late Latin potēre, which ousted posse at an early date. It turns up in Spanish as poder, it survives unchanged in Italian (although possum gives posso, whereas Spanish ended up with puedo) and it underlies French pouvoir. In Romanian it became putere (again with o to u), but in the short form the 2nd conjugation has acquired an extra a. All to do with the e being stressed.