Subjects of Infinitives

Subjects of Infinitives

Infinitives are verbs, and so infinitives also must have subjects. When infinitives play the role of subjects of main verbs, there are two common interpretations: the infinitive's subject can be inferred from the context, or the sentence is being used to make a broad generalization, with "people in general" as an understood subject. Here are examples:

Context: To lose the contract would be a disaster for

our company. (Our company is the one losing the contract.)

Generalization: To live abroad is a major commitment. (This

is a generalization about everyone living abroad.)

When infinitives follow the main verbs of the sentence, the subjects of the main verbs are automatically assigned to the infinitives (just as they were with gerunds). For example:

Object: Susan decided to hire a new secretary. (Susan

was the person hiring the new secretary.)

Predicate nominative: Susan's concern was to find a person as soon

as possible. (Susan was the one doing the finding.)

We can greatly expand the usefulness of infinitives by inserting new subjects independent of the subject of the main verb. These new subjects are called "subjects of the infinitive." As with gerunds, the label "subject of the infinitive" does not apply to the subjects of the main verb that are automatically assigned to the infinitive.

We create these new subjects by inserting prepositional phrases begin­ning with for immediately in front of the infinitive. The nouns or pro­nouns that are the objects of for are now the new subjects of the infinitives that follow them. Here are some examples with the subject of the infinitive in bold:


For Smith to turn down the job was a big surprise. (Smith is the person turning down the job.)

For Jones to return the favor meant a lot to us. (Jones is the one returning the favor.)

Predicate Nominative

The main decision was for the union to go on strike. (The union is going on strike.)

The arrangement is for Sally to pick us up at noon. (Sally is picking us up at noon.)

Object of Verb

We pleaded for them to accept the offer. (They, not we, would accept the offer.)

Our office arranged for me to go to the meeting. (I am the one going to the meeting.)

Just as we saw with gerunds, certain main verbs will not permit inde­pendent subjects (subjects of the infinitive) to be used with infinitives that play the role of object. In other words, these main verbs require their own subjects to be assigned to the infinitives that follow them. Here are several examples, each with an infinitive that has an assigned subject (grammati­cal) and then the same verb with a new independent subject of the infini­tive (ungrammatical):


Assigned subject: I forgot to bring my cell phone.

Independent subject

of the infinitive: X I forgot for my secretary to bring my cell phone.


Assigned subject: They learned to speak English in college.

Independent subject

of the infinitive: X They learned for us to speak English in college.


Assigned subject: John started to call the meeting to order.

Independent subject

of the infinitive: X John started for Majry to call the meeting to order.

Following is a summary listing of the more common verbs that permit infinitives with assigned subjects as objects of the verb but do not permit independent subjects of the infinitive. The verbs are roughly grouped into semantic categories.

Group 1: affect, ask, claim, decline, demand, offer, promise, refuse, swear, undertake Group 2: afford, attempt, endeavor, fail, learn, manage, neglect, omit, try

Group 3: begin, cease, continue, start, stop Group 4: hope, propose, want, wish Group 5: disdain, help, scorn, venture Group 6: forget, remember, regret