The Infinitives

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)

The Infinitives are a handful of fixed forms like English "to........"

The Infinitive is a form of the verb which seems to have been stripped of almost everything that characterizes a verb: It lacks person identification, it lacks the singular/plural distinction, its time sequence is very restricted since it has only a present and a past form, but it does at least have a real active as well as a passive distinction. It knows nothing of being factual or conditional (subjunctive), in fact it is very a very poor excuse for a verb! (In its active forms, present and past, the infinitive was historically a dative singular in the noun group.)

On the other hand the Infinitive is easy enough for an English speaker to understand, since in one of its most common uses it is translated as "to...." :

        amare "to love"
        monere "to warn"
        ducere "to lead" 
        audire "to hear".
When you see an infinitive first think or English "to...." and you will be started on the right track. But there are some differences too:

In English we say "I want--to do-- something....", but this is not the infinitive in Latin, where you must, after ideas of wanting, wishing, desiring etc. say something like "I want that you should (conditional) do something", with ut + the Subjunctive. We are dealing with a purposive statement, and clauses of purpose are not infinitives (what they are we will get to soon enough...).

After verbs which say something, think something, maintain and claim something, and others of similar mental/verbal character, an infinitive is used in the natural sequence of ideas, in a clause which we call Indirect Discourse:

Clamat eum iniustum fuisse... is literally "he yells that he (someone else) was unjust", and immediately we note that we have dropped the prototypical "to..." (which I said above infinitives had), and we slipped in an inexplicable "that" for our English translation. In other words we turned our infinitive into a "that"-introduced (subordinate) statement clause. Why did we have to do this?

Well, the alternative in English would have been: "He yells him to have been unjust", which is pigeon English at best. So here again the seemingly similar English "to" is not always the equivalent of a Latin infinitive.

"To do or to die...." ? In fact this is perfect Latin. Re-phrased the infinitive can be understood to be a noun in the subject case. Dulce et decorum pro patria mori, said Horace, meaning "Sweet and right to die for your country", a notion which is being questioned after Vietnam for the first time in our history.

(MORI is an infinitive, it is the subject obviously, and it is considered neuter, as the two words dulce Class III neuter, and decorum Class II neuter, show.)

So here is the infinitive in another guise: Neuter substitute for a subject case noun, which would be a very odd idea except for the fact that English does it too.

The forms of the Infinitive as noted, are not many:

        I               II              III             IV
Pres.   amare           monere          ducere          audire 
Perf.   amavisse        monuisse        duxisse         audivisse
That is pretty straightforward, the present forms have an ending -re in all classes, the past forms take whatever stem the verb had in its Perfect tense, and add the easily recognizable syllable -isse to it. Meaning is clear too: "To love" is the present, "to have loved" is the past.


Amavisse bene est, melius amare "It is good to have loved, better to be in love'.
Note I translated bene "well" as "good" which is an adjective; adjectives amplifying an infinitive are always adverbs, because of the verbal core of the infinitive concept, a minor detail.

Now these forms also exist in the Passive, which we have not shown you yet, but since it is convenient to put down the passive infinitives here on this page, here they are:

(We will go back and to the rest of the verb in the passives after our excursus on infinitives and participles.)

        I              II             III              IV
Pres.   amari          moneri         duci             audiri 
Perf.   amatum esse    monitus esse   ductus esse      auditus esse
The present passive infinitives thus have an ending -ri in three of the classes, but Class III duci is grammatically circumcised, and fails to show the infinitive-characteristic -r- sound. It doesn't look like a passive infinitive at all, so note it very carefully, because it will fool you time and again, especially since in this case it exactly resembles the to-for (dative) singular of a noun form, duci "to the leader", from dux "il Duce". Many irregular forms are puzzling, this one is like a chameleon.

The past passive infinitives are new looking, but they are easy to spot. They use the present infinitive esse "to be" as a separate word joined with , or actually following the perfect passive participle of the verb. The two together make a "periphrastic" excuse for a past passive infinitive, which Latin did not originally have. We have a right to call this periphrastic, which in Greek means "round about talking" and is a quite accurate if obscure term for this form. Clumsy as a three barreled shotgun, these forms are actually much used, and one gets used to them, noting that they are passive infinitives, NOT past participles with a verb "to be" floating around in their wake.

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