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What is the correct way to use infinitive after the verb "help": with or without "to"?

For example:

Please, help me to understand this.


Please, help me understand this.

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10 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The particle "to" is not wrong in this sentence, but it is unnecessary. I would recommend against using it.

The phrase "to understand" can be interpreted as a special case of the infinitive; a kind of future infinitive or impersonal future tense. In that context, the first sentence means, essentially, "please help me develop an understanding of this (in the future)". While that may be technically correct, it adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence.

To add some weight to my argument, the COCA lists 142 entries for "help me understand" versus only 18 for "help me to understand". The results are similar for other constructions involving "help me ..." versus "help me to ...".

I think that the confusion stems from the way you must use the infinitive in other cases, for example: "I want to understand this", or "I am trying to understand this". In these cases, the particle is an absolute neccesity.

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the "to" might not BE wrong but it sure feels wrong to me. I'd strongly recommend not using it with "help me ... " . –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 30 '10 at 19:19
@Mr. Shiny and New: I agree. It feels like a stumbling block when reading the sentence. –  e.James Sep 30 '10 at 20:17
While in case of 'help' 'to' is merely redundant, with negative words it tends to reverse the intended meaning. "He stopped smoking" is obvious. "He stopped to smoke" - he stopped doing whatever he was doing, and began smoking instead. –  SF. Jul 20 '12 at 14:28
+1 for mentioning COCA –  xiaobai Oct 2 '13 at 1:16
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Help is a special verb in that way - the to is usually dropped from an infinitive when it is modifying help. This form of infinitive is called the bare infinitive:

  • The bare infinitive is used as the main verb after the dummy auxiliary verb do, or most modal auxiliary verbs (such as will, can, or should). So, "I will/do/can/etc. see it."
  • Several common verbs of perception, including see, watch, hear, feel, and sense take a direct object and a bare infinitive, where the bare infinitive indicates an action taken by the main verb's direct object. So, "I saw/watched/heard/etc. it happen." (A similar meaning can be effected by using the present participle instead: "I saw/watched/heard/etc. it happening." The difference is that the former implies that the entirety of the event was perceived, while the latter implies that part of the progress of the event was perceived.)
  • Similarly with several common verbs of permission or causation, including make, bid, let, and have. So, "I made/bade/let/had him do it." (However, make takes a to-infinitive in the passive voice: "I was made to do it.")
  • After the had better expression. So, "You had better leave now."
  • With the verb help. So, "He helped them find it." (The use of the to-infinitive with the verb help is also common.)
  • With the word why. So, "Why reveal it?" (Use of the to-infinitive following why is also common.)
  • The bare infinitive is the dictionary form of a verb, and is generally the form of a verb that receives a definition; however, the definition itself generally uses a to-infinitive. So, "The word 'amble' means 'to walk slowly.'"
  • The bare infinitive form coincides with the present subjunctive form as well as the imperative form, but most grammarians do not consider uses of the present subjunctive or imperative to be uses of the bare infinitive.
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Two hyperlinks to complete drɱ65 δ's answer: −−− bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/…−−− englishgrammar.org/bare-infinitive-2 –  Laure Nov 1 '11 at 17:49
+1. Note: It is, to my knowledge, acceptable to keep "to" in the case of "help". –  jprete Nov 2 '11 at 0:23
Yes; that's why I chose the word usually. Wikipedia makes a note of that as well. –  Daniel Nov 2 '11 at 0:39
Does this explain whether "The only thing one can do with a donut is eat it." is correct versus "The only thing one can do with a donut is to eat it."? –  agks mehx May 22 '13 at 0:42
Yes it does. The Wikipedia link was changed and the page updated, so I just re-linked the page properly. Now if you click on the link in my answer, you will come to the updated Wikipedia section on bare infinitives. Among the examples, it says "As a predicative expression in pseudo-cleft sentences of the following type: What I did was tie the rope to the beam. What you should do is invite her round for dinner." –  Daniel May 22 '13 at 13:54
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I think you may find there is also a difference here between US and GB English (a field worth writing a book about!). From experience, I'd say "help...to" is more prevalent in British English and less common in the US. As a British translator (from German) I've sometimes had "help to + infinitive" corrected to just "help + infinitive" by US editors.

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The plain form of the verb is preceded by the particle to in most instances where it follows another verb, so we would have to say, for example, Encouraging you to master Russian and not *Encouraging you master Russian. After the verb help, however, to is optional, and after some other verbs it is even disallowed. We cannot say *Making you to master Russian and we cannot say *Letting you to master Russian*.

The particle to is not really part of the verb at all. Not only is it not required after help, it is not allowed at all following modal verbs, or make, see, hear and let.

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"Helping you to master Spanish." is the grammatically complete and correct way to write it. However, "Helping you master Spanish." is also correct - the to can be omitted as it is understood. This is permitted by grammar.

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The particle to is what's called a Complementizer. It marks the verb following as an Infinitive (in English, that's necessary because English infinitive verb forms are identical with the present tense forms -- to go, I go; to sit, I sit, except for the single verb be (I am, to be). More on infinitive complements here

To is not a part of the verb that follows it, nor yet a part of whatever comes before it. It's a particle; one of those troublesome little words like the, that, of, at, etc. which English uses to decorate and distinguish its syntactic constructions, now that all its morphology's gone.

Infinitives get used in a variety of ways. One of them is as Complement clauses; these are Noun clauses that can function as the subject or direct object of a number of verbs. It's one of the principal ways we can form complex sentences. This particular chunk -- helping their son win the fight -- has a clause something like {their son wins the fight} as the direct object of helping.

As Daniel observes above, help is unusual in that it doesn't require to, although it also doesn't forbid it. Both are grammatical, and there's no meaning difference; it's just stylistic -- that means some people will feel one is more formal than the other, but won't be able to agree on which one.

  • I helped him to win the prize.
  • I helped him win the prize.

Different people, in different contexts, may find some distinction here, but not much.

Some other verbs that can omit to before an infinitive object complement include

  • all modal auxiliaries (will, would, may, might, can, could, shall, should, must)
  • go and come in certain constructions (go be his assistant, come sit by me)
  • do in all its uses:

    • do-support do: Do you own that house?
    • emphatic do: He does own that!
    • active do: What he does is (to) read books.

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Both are correct, although including to is useless. Without it, the sentence is perfectly understandable.

It's usually thought to be American (without "to") vs. British (with "to") English, but both countries use them interchangeably, so this thought is false.

Your best bet is to leave it out - your sentences will be clear and easier to understand. If you leave it in, your sentence will still be correct, though.

There are cases when you can't place to anywhere, like:

Help me off the ladder, please.

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Help me [[to] get] off the ladder. –  teylyn May 7 '11 at 11:44
Sure, you can add many useless words to make the sentence as long as possible, so that you fall from the ladder before you finish saying it. –  RiMMER May 7 '11 at 14:25
There are no useless words. "Help me off the ladder" is a possible shorter version of "Help me to get off the ladder". The "to get" can be omitted. –  teylyn May 7 '11 at 23:05
It's not actually entirely false that it's a British vs American thing: counting the instances of "Help us [verb]" versus "Help us to [verb]" in BNC and COCA suggests that the "to" is used 53% of the time in British English, but only 15% in US English. So while both dialects use both forms, there is a definite stylistic bias :-) –  psmears Jul 4 '11 at 21:35
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The to in to do is not a preposition, it is an infinitive marker. It marks the use of the infinitive form of a verb.

With the phrase "helping [person] X" where X is some verb phrase (most likely an action), then the infinitive marker can be dropped.

This inflatable is helping you swim

Is the same as

This inflatable is helping you to swim


His instructor is helping him master Russian

Is the same as

His instructor is helping him to master Russian

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The passive forms, though queried by Quirk, are used.

"I was helped clean" shows 3 Google hits.

"I was helped to clean" shows 2950 Google hits. (at my space-time coordinates)

This is how I felt the breakdown would be.

While I have no problem in accepting both "I helped clean" and "I helped to clean" as equally grammatical, I feel the bias in favour (sorry, favor) of the omission of the infinitive-marker as superfluous might be dented a little when the no-to advocates try to explain why to seems to be considered necessary in the passive.

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I remember reading a good while ago (I think in a book published by the Reader's Digest called The Right Word at the Right Time) that it is correct to use help to when an inanimate object is providing the help, and merely help when a person is providing the help. I'm not at all sure how well that advice matches actual usage.

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"The glasses helped him read the blackboard" vs. "The glasses helped him to read the blackboard" -- inanimate object or no, I still prefer the version without "to". –  Marthaª Nov 9 '10 at 14:57
How about "He was helped read the blackboard by having a new pair of glasses"? Incidentally, I think TRiG has got it the wrong way round with the RD citation above, and they are certainly only mentioning some authors' preferences, without themselves endorsing them. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 10 '13 at 21:10
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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 22 '11 at 15:01

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