A verb is used to signify the performance of an action. Every verb needs a noun to perform its action.
One noun and one verb are the minimum needed to make a complete sentence—for example:
- It flew.
- We waited.
- I am.
An infinitive, also known as a verb root or verb stem, is a verb in its uninflected form. In English, infinitives are preceded by to—for example, to fly, to swim, to go. Think of infinitives as verbs abstracted from real action.
Active voice and passive voice
In the active voice, to is usually dropped from the infinitive. For example, in this sentence, the to is dropped from the infinitive to stay:
He should stay in Reno, where he belongs.
If the same thought were expressed in the passive voice, the to would remain:
I urge him to stay in cable, where he belongs.
Split infinitives, once considered problematic by grammarians, are perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances—particularly when the adverb splitting the infinitive needs special emphasis or would not work anywhere else in the sentence.
Infinitives as nouns
To err is human . . .
Less frequently, they may also be used as adjectives to modify nouns—for example:
I have a desire to discover … [Long Story Longer]
Here, to discover modifies the noun desire.
In English, there are six tenses in the indicative mood:
|Present Tense: |
|Present Perfect Tense: |
I have run.
You have eaten.
They have listened.
She has entered.
Future Perfect Tense:
Transitive and intransitive verbs
She kept the tree, but decorated it exclusively in blue, white and silver. [NY Times]
Both verbs (kept and decorated) would have very different meanings without their objects (tree and it).
An intransitive verb can’t have a direct object. In other words, the action of the verb does not affect anything directly. For example, the main verb in the following sentence is intransitive:
Advertisers have reacted to Tiger Woods’ collapsing popularity in numerous ways. [Huffington Post]
The verb react is incapable of taking a direct object. In this sentence, “Tiger Woods’ collapsing popularity” is an indirect object.
Other verb classifications
Ergative verbs are verbs that can be used transitively or intransitively. An ergative verb’s noun is its object when the verb is transitive, and the noun becomes the subject when the verb is intransitive. For example, in the sentence I baked a cake, the transitive verb baked takes cake as its direct object. In the sentence The cake is baking, the verb bake becomes intransitive.
In contrast, the sentence I washed the dishes wouldn’t make sense if changed to The dishes washed.
There are thousands of ergative verbs in English, so we won’t list them. Instead, here are a few other examples of verbs that can undergo the shift from transitive to intransitive:
I changed my mind.
My mind changed.
They broke the window.
The window broke.
Let’s fly a kite.
The kite flies beautifully.
We ship our books within 24 hours.
Our books ship within 24 hours.
Forms of to be often serve as linking verbs—for example:
Humans are mortal.
She was a doctor.
Dinner is served.
Weakened intransitive verbs—often look, seem, become, feel, appear—may also serve as linking verbs—for example:
She became a doctor.
They seemed unimpressed.