The Infinitive (The Basics) - Podcast Episode 24

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Welcome to episode 24 of The English Sessions. The Infinitive. I am your host and English teacher, Mike Butler. These podcasts can help you improve your English! Together, we will talk about grammar… pronunciation… structure... and have some fun too. Remember to visit my website, to contact me for private lessons, and for more content.

You can also read the transcript of this audio on the website, as you listen to this episode.

Listen for these words today:

Hesitate - ‘to hesitate’ is a verb that means ’to think cautiously before you do something’ or ‘be uncertain to do something’. For example, “she hesitated first before she entered the room full of tigers”.

Tiger - a tiger is a very big type of cat.

Picture of a Tiger

Bales of Straw

Bale (B-A-L-E) - a ‘bale’ is a large quantity of something, all wrapped tightly together with string, or twine, or cords. This word is hard to describe, so go to the website for a picture of something that is a ‘bale’.

I talked about the infinitive a little bit in Episode 16 because that episode is about the preposition, ‘to’. I talked about the difference between the ‘to’ infinitive marker and preposition ‘to’. Today, we will talk about the infinitive in detail.

So what is the infinitive? It’s a verb. It is the basic form of any verb. It is the verb that is not conjugated. It is the verb that you find when you look up that word in a dictionary. For example, hmmmm, I can’t think right now… what is the verb for when you move your teeth up and down with food in your mouth, to make it ready to go down your throat. Oh yeah, chew! The verb is ‘chew’ or ‘to chew’. That’s the infinitive form of that verb.

Now, we know that this verb is going to change sometimes. There is the past tense form of the verb, chewed. He chewed the food. Now, it is not the infinitive because it changed. It’s not the basic form of the verb anymore. It changed. Another example, “he chews the food”. This is not the infinitive. As you all know, even though many of you don’t want to follow this rule, which is your choice, the verb changes in the simple present verb tense when ‘he/she/it’ is the subject. He chews. She chews. It chews. I chew. These are all the simple present verb tense, and not the infinitive.

Okay, so we understand now. The infinitive is the basic form of any verb, before it changes. There are two ways to use the infinitive. In episode 16, I talked about the ‘to’ infinitive. That is when we have the word ‘to’ in front of the verb. To go; to play; to eat; to stay; to run. This use of the infinitive is pretty obvious most of the time. “I like to play”. “I need to go to the store”. It often comes after some other verb. I like to play, I need to go, I want to go, I hope to go. Right? It’s very common. We use it all the time in English.

Sometimes, however, it is not so simple to know the difference between the ‘to’ infinitive and the preposition ‘to’ in a sentence.

I’m going to give you a little test. Pause the podcast, and listen to episode 11 for clues to the answer.
    1. I am looking forward to bake a cake.
    2. I am looking forward to baking a cake.

Can you guess which one a native English speaker is most likely to say? Do you think #1? No. Do you think #2? Yes! Number 2 has correct sentence structure. If you remember, you will often see a noun after a preposition, or, a gerund, because we all know from episode 11 that gerunds function like nouns, right? Let’s look at some other examples using the preposition ‘to’. I am going to the store. I am walking to the park. The phrase “I am looking forward” is no different than “I am going” or “I am walking”. We just have have an adverb, ‘forward’ after the verb. So, similarly, you can say, “I am walking quickly to the park” or “I am going hesitantly to the store, because of the pandemic. OR I am looking forward to the park! I am looking forward to the store. I am looking forward to the cake because I love cake. I am looking forward to baking the cake because I love to bake.

Okay, so that’s the ‘to’ infinitive. Are you ever confused about whether the ‘to’ in a sentence is the preposition or the infinitive marker? Email me with the sentence that is confusing you, and I will help.

Now it’s time to talk about the other way to use the infinitive. We call it the ‘bare’ or ‘zero’ infinitive. This is the infinitive WITHOUT the word ‘to’. This is also very common in English, but often, many learners do not realize that it is the infinitive.

I am going to provide some examples. Listen carefully.
    #1. I listen. I don’t listen.
    #2. I listened. I didn’t listen.

What are we doing here? #1. I listen, I don’t listen. “I listen” is in the simple present. Subject + verb in the simple present. I don’t listen, ahh, now we have the auxiliary verb, ‘do’. You follow auxiliary verbs and modal verbs with the ‘bare infinitive’. So, “I don’t listen” is subject + auxiliary verb in the simple present + bare infinitive. What about #2? #2. I listened. I didn’t listen. These are all correct in English. “I listened” is in the simple past verb tense. Subject + verb in the simple past. “I didn’t listen”, now we have the auxiliary verb ‘do’ in the simple past. That is the one verb in the sentence that is in the past tense. The other verb, ‘listen’ is, you guessed it, the bare infinitive. I didn’t listen. subject + auxiliary verb in the simple past + bare infinitive.

Sometimes my learners get confused about this sentence structure for talking about the past. For example, I teach English over the internet. So, as you can imagine, there are technical problems. Sometimes my students say, “Mike, I DIDN’T HEARD YOU”. And I can understand why they want to say that. They are talking about the past. So, it makes sense if you want to have all of the verbs in a sentence in the past tense. Unfortunately, this is not correct. So remember, the correct sentence would be, “I didn’t hear you”. Only the auxiliary verb, ‘do’, is in the past tense.

Okay, so the ‘bare/zero’ infinitive (sometimes it’s called ‘bare’ sometimes it’s called ‘zero’) comes after the auxiliary verb ‘do’. I didn’t hear you. I didn’t stay in the park. I didn’t go to work today. It’s the same for questions using the auxiliary. We use the auxiliary verb ‘do’ for questions too, as you know. Do you like pizza? Do you take public transportation? ‘Like’  and ‘take’ are the bare infinitive. It’s the same with questions in the past. Did you take public transportation yesterday? Did you eat pizza yesterday? Again, only the auxiliary verb is in the past tense.

So, another little test. Which is correct?
    #1. Did you ate soup this morning?
    #2. Did you eat soup this morning?

Good! #2 is correct. Did you eat soup this morning?

Let’s move on. You also see the ‘bare infinitive’ after modal verbs. What are modal verbs? Modal verbs are verbs like ‘should; would; can; could; may; might; will…’. They are not ordinary verbs, and they have special rules. We definitely need to talk more about modal verbs in the future, but today just remember that these verbs have special rules. They are not action verbs. They often express necessity, or possibility, or, with ‘will’, the future, future events. They are similar to the auxiliary verb ‘do’, in fact, they are sometimes called the auxiliary modal verbs. It is the same rule as before, with the auxiliary ‘do’. Use the modal verb, and then the bare infinitive. I can go. I should go. I will go. I may go… subject + modal verb + bare infinitive.

MISTAKE: Sometimes my students want to say, “I must to go”. They want to use the ‘to’ infinitive after modal verbs. I don’t blame them, I mean, why not? You can say, “I need to go”. “I need to go” is correct. It’s correct because it is NOT a modal verb. “Must” is a modal verb, so it is correct to say, “I must go”. Why is this important? Why is so important to remove that little word ‘to’? Well, for a couple reasons. First, it may help you to understand that there is a difference between modal verbs, auxiliary verbs, and other verbs. But, also, I am the first to admit that adult learners often overthink things when learning a language. Second, more importantly, if you say the wrong thing, a native speaker might misunderstand you. Just like in your language, we become very accustomed to hearing something in a certain way. Saying, “I must to go”, combined perhaps with a strong accent, if you are still working on English pronunciation, is definitely enough to confuse your listener, in my opinion.

So, to recap, remember, “I must to go” is incorrect. “I must go” is correct. I will go (correct). I should go (correct. I should stay, I should leave, I should play games (ALL CORRECT. These are modal verbs.

Okay, so the bare/zero infinitive after modal verbs, after the auxiliary ‘do’, like in negative sentences or in questions.

You will see the bare infinitive used in other ways. These are the important rules to remember, however. Send your sentences to me, and we will look at all the bare infinitive forms, and talk about them.

After the break, I’ll make a little story. You must tell me when I use the to infinitive and the bare infinitive.


Okay, so I’m not feeling creative today. My “story” is going to be just some information I found on my computer about recycling. It may come as no surprise, it’s about pizza. I swear I eat other foods. I just really love pizza. Come visit me in Bisbee, and we’ll eat at the best pizzeria in town, Gus the Greek. Alright, so look at this information about recycling pizza boxes:

“Does that plastic lunch container still have yesterday's pizza in it? Don't recycle it until it's clean!
One dirty product, or one with food waste still in it, can contaminate an entire bale, containing thousands of pounds of collected plastics.
This can cause thousands of recyclable items to go to a landfill instead of being recycled.
Cleanliness is essential.” (

A very exciting story today, isn’t it? Followed by something even more exciting, grammar! Okay, what verbs are in the infinitive? Well, the first sentence is a question, with the auxiliary verb, ‘do’. Alright, then we probably have an infinitive verb in there. The only other verb in the question is ‘have’. HAVE is the bare infinitive in this question. Ah, and the second sentence is a negative! Alright! So, what’s the verb after the auxiliary verb? ……….. RECYCLE! “Recycle” is the verb, in the bare infinitive. Now, you can see that it’s everywhere. Go to the website to see the text about recycling, it will make this easier. Don’t worry, just pause the podcast, I’ll wait. Are you back? Okay, then what’s the next sentence? “One dirty product, or one with food waste still in it, can contaminate an entire bale, containing thousands of pounds of collected plastics. Well, do you see an auxiliary verb ‘do’ or a modal verb in this sentence? …. YES! CAN. C-A-N, CAN. Can contaminate. ‘Contaminate’ is the bare infinitive verb. The next sentence has two uses of the infinitive. What are they? …… I will read the sentence…. “This can cause thousands of recyclable items to go to a landfill instead of being recycled”. MODAL VERB “CAN” + infinitive verb “CAUSE”. That’s the first one. “TO GO TO”. Perfect! We have the ‘to’ infinitive verb, ‘to go’, followed by a preposition ‘to’, and then that noun, ‘landfill’, because, of course, it many sentence structures, you will see a noun after the preposition.

Okay, that’s it. I don’t think I missed any uses of the infinitive here, but if I did, please let me know! In future episodes, I want to get to more specific problems that learners have, but, I can’t really talk about certain problems until I talk about the basic grammar being used. Today, I actually wanted to talk about the verb ’stop’. What are the differences between STOP + infinitive and STOP + gerund, but, I decided that I need to have an episode about the infinitive first, otherwise you may not know what I’m talking about, and then you would go to some OTHER source of information for English learning, and we can’t have that.

CORRECTION: I have a correction from last week’s episode about Bisbee, Arizona. I listened to the episode, and realized that I gave the wrong pronunciation of a word. No, I’m not talking about my attempt at Spanish. However, if you are a native Spanish speaker and want to correct my pronunciation, please leave a message on the website.

No, the word I’m talking about is in English. It’s a noun that has two separate meanings, both with the same spelling, each with a different pronunciation. These types of words are called ‘heteronyms’. Last week, I gave the wrong pronunciation. My pronunciation indicated the OTHER noun with the same spelling. Let’s travel back in time, shall we? ____ PLAY CLIP ____. Next week, I will reveal which word I’m talking about. Remember, it is a word in English that is a noun; it is a noun with two different definitions but with the same spelling, and each definition has a different pronunciation. Let’s make it fun. If you know what word I’m talking about, write in to the podcast, or leave a message on the website. The first person to guess the word correctly will win a prize, and the prize is: a free private tutoring session with me, Mike.

Any questions? Write to me at . Leave a message for me on the website, and I will play it on the podcast. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you won’t miss an episode. Visit for more content. Please rate and review The English Sessions on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media. Twitter @theEsessions; Instagram @englishsessionswithmike; Search for The English Sessions on Facebook. Until next time, this is Mike signing off.


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