The infinitive (l'infinitif) is the basic form of a verb that you find when you look it up in a dictionary. It is a non-finite (or "in-finite", hence "infinitive") verb form (like participles and gerunds), which means that it has no expressed or implied subject and shows no tense.
In English, "do" and "write" are infinitives, although we usually precede them with "to" (i.e. "to do", "to write") to make it clear that we are talking about the infinitive. Additionally, many constructions in English use the infinitive preceded by "to". For example:
- "He wants to go there" uses the infinitive with "to": the full infinitive (or to-infinitive).
- "He must go there" used the infinitive without "to": the bare infinitive.
In French, infinitives end in -er, -ir or -re, which gives an indication of the verb family (or conjugation) that they belong to. For example: regarder (to watch), finir (to finish), vendre (to sell). Here are example sentences using these infinitives:
- Nous allons regarder la télévision. (We are going to watch television.)
- Ils doivent finir leurs devoirs. (They must finish their homework.)
- Je voudrais vendre la maision. (I would like to sell the house.)
The French infinitive is very often used after modal verbs (e.g. devoir, pouvoir) and after many other verbs, nouns or adjectives, sometimes linked by a preposition (e.g. à, de) and sometimes not (you just have to learn this!). Here is a short text that illustrates this varied use:
Je veux trouver un emploi. J'ai essayé de trouver un emploi. Cependant, je n'ai pas encore pu trouver un emploi. J'ai besoin de gagner de l'argent et je serais très content de travailler. Je dois trouver un emploi !
(I want to find a job. I have tried to find a job. However, I have not yet been able to find a job. I need to earn some money and I would be happy to work. I must find a job!)
All prepositions (except en and après), when followed by a verb in French, are followed by the infinitive. In English, prepositions except "to" take the -ing form of the verb. For example:
Il faut manger avant d'étudier. You must eat before studying.
Vous ne pouvez pas sortir sans manger. You can't go out without eating.
Au lieu d'y aller à pied, on pourrait prendre l'autobus. Instead of going on foot, we could take the bus.
en takes the present participle (-ant):
On a quitté le théâtre en riant. (We left the theatre laughing.)
après takes the past infinitive (avoir/être/s'être + past participle):
Après avoir étudié, nous avons mangé. After studying, we ate.
Après être partis, nous sommes allés chez nous. After leaving, we went home.
Après s'être assise, Véronique m'a expliqué le problème. After sitting down, Véronique explained the problem to me.
- It is used when the verb is used as a noun, usually the same as the English gerund (-ing form used as a noun):
Trouver un emploi n'est pas facile. Finding a job is not easy.
- It can also be used to summarise an action, without indicating time or tense:
Payer 100 euros pour acheter un billet ? Tu blagues ! Pay 100 Euros to buy one ticket? No way!
Sortir sans manteau en hiver : c'est fou ! To go out without a coat in winter: that's crazy!
- It is also used for commands in contexts such as instructions and notices:
Déchirer ici. Tear here.
Ne pas courir dans les couloirs. Don't run in the corridors.