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uses of the infinitive in italian

The present infinitive or “dictionary form” is the form ending in -are, -ere or -ire in Italian, and preceded by “to” in English (to eat, to run, etc.).

To form the past infinitive, you use the infinitive of avere or essere + the past participle.

avere mangiato (also aver mangiato)

essere venuto (also esser venuto)

As always, the participle of essere verbs agrees with the subject.

Maria è contenta di essere venuta. (Maria is happy to have come.)

These verb forms (present and past infinitive) occur in many constructions in Italian.

Infinitive – Uses

Subject or Direct Object

In Italian, the infinitive serves as the subject or direct object of a sentence, whereas English uses the infinitive or gerund (the -ing form).

Imparare il cinese è molto difficile. (subject) Learning Chinese is very hard.

È vietato fumare. (direct object) Smoking is prohibited.

With Modals

You may know the infinitive follows so-called modal verbs – volere, potere, dovere.

Voglio uscire ma devo studiare. Posso aver sbagliato.

Other verbs that function a bit like modals and precede infinitives:

sapere – Non so ballare.

piacere – Mi piace cantare.

preferire – Preferisco restare a casa.

desiderare – Desidero uscire con gli amici.

amare – Amo suonare il flauto.

Note that the infinitive is only used with modals when the subject of both the modal and the infinitive is the same. Compare:

Voglio uscire. (same subject – infinitive)

Voglio che tu esca. (Here the person wanting is not the same as the person going out, so we use the subjunctive.)

With a verb + “a” or “di”

Apart from the above modals, most Italian verbs take “a” or “di” + infinitive.

Some verbs that take “a” + infinitive:

abituarsi a – to get used to (Mi abituo a partire più presto.)

aiutare a – to help (Ti aiuto a fare i compiti.)

cominciare a – to begin

continuare a – to continue

convincere a – to convince

fermarsi a – to stop oneself

forzare a – to force

imparare a – to learn

incoraggiare a – to encourage

insegnare a – to teach

invitare a – to invite

mandare a – to send

obbligare a – to oblige

passare a – to pass

persuadere a – to persuade

preparare a – to prepare

riuscire a – to succeed

spingere a – to push

venire a – to come

Most other verbs take “di”. Some common examples:

accettare di – to accept

avere bisogno di – to need

avere paura di – to be afraid of

avere voglia di – to feel like

cercare di – to try

chiedere di – to ask

credere di – to believe

decidere di – to decide

dimenticare di – to forget

dire di – to say

domandare di – to ask

finire di – to finish

ordinare di – to order

pensare di – to plan

permettere di – to permit

proibire di – to prohibit

promettere di – to promise

ricordare di – to remember

smettere di – to stop

sperare di – to hope

In these constructions, you use the present infinitive when the action expressed by the infinitive is taking place at the same time as the main verb or after. If the action expressed by the infinitive occurred prior to the main verb, use the past infinitive. Compare:

Lucio dice di vedere Mario. – Here Lucio is seeing Mario (present infinitive) while saying so (main verb), or will see him after.

Lucio dice di aver visto Mario. – Here Lucio saw Mario (past infinitive) prior to saying so (main verb).

Mario crede di capire tutto. – Here the understanding (present infinitive) and the belief (main verb) are simultaneous.

Mario crede di aver capito tutto. – Here the understanding (past infinitive) took place prior to the main verb.

Mario dice di fare tanti viaggi. – Travels take place at same time as speech or after.

Mario dice di aver fatto tanti viaggi. – Travels took place prior to speech.

In Place of Imperative in Official Settings

You will often see the infinitive used in place of the imperative (command form) in official settings (such as signs, directions, instructions, cookbooks, etc.)

Ritirare lo scontrino alla cassa. (Get a receipt at the cash register.)

The infinitive is also used for negative imperatives (commands) in the “tu” form. Some examples:

Non dire sciocchezze! – Don’t talk foolishness.

Non ridere! – Don’t laugh.

With Impersonal Expressions

These include…

È bene imparare una lingua straniera.

È giusto aiutare gli amici.

Non è possibile ricordare tutto.

Bisogna sapere le regole.

Basta studiare un’ora.

But only when no subject is explicit. Compare…

È bene imparare una lingua straniera. (no explicit subject – infinitive)

È bene che tu impari una lingua straniera. (explicit subject – subjunctive)

With Per to Convey Purpose

In Italian, to convey purpose (“in order to”) you use per + infinitive.

Ho telefonato per salutarti. (I phoned to say hi.) Notice English uses the infinitive alone, with no equivalent of “per”.

Infinitves are extremely useful in Italian, as common as water to a fish and so, easy to overlook. But once you start noticing them they seem to pop up everywhere. So it's good to get a handle on them. C4N!

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for the lesson. It was really useful, but for me to understand the way some of the infinitives work I need to see what the English translation is. You provided the translations on some examples, but not all. I'm sure that others might find it useful too. Thank you for putting this together though.
July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternicole
Thank you for this excellent discussion of the use of the infinitive. My question has to do with the use of the infinitive and the past infinitive vs a conjugated form in a sentence where the clauses have the same subject. To illustrate, I ran across this sentence in an Italian excercise on the use of the trapassato prossimo/passato prossimo: " Luisa mi ha detto CHE non era mai stata a Londra in vita sua." This use of the conjugated verb in the second clause confuses me because the subjects are the same in both clauses, so I would have expected the sentence to read "Luisa mi ha detto di non essere mai stata a Londra in vita sua." Perhaps you could help clear up my confusion on this topic.

Thanks in advance, Gary
October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGary Y

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