As part of the introduction to the grammar guide The English Tenses, I explain important words that are required to understand English grammar – including participles and infinitives. The following is a full explanation of what we mean when we say the bare infinitive, and how you can commonly recognise and use it.
To understand what the infinitive form of a verb is, it is important to understand its root. The noun infinity, and the adjective infinite mean something that is never ending. The infinitive is also something that never ends, it always keeps its form. It is a verb form, preceded by the word to, which never changes, regardless of how it is used in a sentence.
- to read – I like to read. / He did not want to read.
- to buy – I am trying to buy a book. / She had been hoping to buy it too.
- to walk – We ought to walk in the hills.
To find the bare infinitive form, consider the following sentences:
- Do you like to walk on a sandy beach bare-footed?
- What is in a bare cupboard?
What is the meaning of bare? When you walk bare-footed, your feet are bare. Do they have socks on? Or shoes? No, they are bare. So what is in the bare cupboard? Like with the bare foot, it has nothing on it or in it. The cupboard is empty. So, what is a bare infinitive? The infinitive is still there, but it is bare. The bare infinitive is still an infinitive, without the word to.
When the bare infinitive is used in a sentence, therefore, remember it is still an infinitive, it simply does not include the word to. So, like the infinitive, its form must never change.
It is important to understand this, because when a bare infinitive is used to form a tense, it is not affected by time or subject-verb agreement.
With the tenses, the bare infinitive is necessary when forming negative forms and questions for the past and present, using “do” auxiliariesand for future tenses which use will or going to.
- Do you want some wine?
- Did they go to the zoo?
- Will we be on time?
- Is he going to feel better soon?
The “do” auxiliary is a helping verb, used to create past and present tenses.
The “do” auxiliary functions only to form a grammatical structure, indicating time and subject, and does not provide extra meaning. It should not be confused with the use of to do as a main verb (which means to complete or perform). Compare these two sentences:
- I did my homework.
- Did you do your homework?
The first sentence the main verb, did, means completed in the past, while in the second sentence uses did as an auxiliary, to create a question. In the second sentence, did forms the question and do refers to the action (completed). After the “do” auxiliary, the main verb becomes a bare infinitive.
In fact, the “do auxiliary” is always followed by a bare infinitive.
- Don’t be late!
- Do you want some tea?
- He didn’t eat meat.
As the verb following a “do” auxiliary is a bare infinitive, it never changes. He didn’t eat meat is in the past tense, but eat does not change. This may look like didn’t eat is a combination of the past and present – it is not. It’s a “do” auxiliary indicating the simple past + bare infinitive.
Understanding the bare infinitive is necessary for forming the tenses, and many other English grammar constructions. It will help you avoid incorrectly forming verbs that follow auxiliary verbs.
The pattern used for the “do” auxiliary is also used for the future simple construction, will + bare infinitive. The bare infinitive is therefore also useful for discussing future time.
Other modal verbs, and auxiliaries, also follow this construction, and require the bare infinitive, including can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, have to, ought to, and used to. While do and will are very important for the tenses, however, the other auxiliary verbs and their specific uses are beyond the scope of this book.