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Why are some verbs only usable in the infinitive? The one example I can think of is "to spite" (see "to wit in the accepted answer). While wiktionary claims that spited is a word, that doesn't match other ite words, like bite or smite. OED disagrees, saying there is no past tense.

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It can be used as a noun of course, but I checked dictionaries. No past tense. I can't imaging that I would spit (to bite), spote (to smite), or spited (to slight) someone. I checked: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spite and another. –  Lawton Jun 15 '12 at 0:05
    
hm. Wiktionary claims spited is a word. I don't know if I buy that. I can't smited or bited... –  Lawton Jun 15 '12 at 0:07
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If the Oxford dictionaries list no past tense, that means it's regular. if there were actually no past tense, they would have noted this, the way they do for must. The past tense is "I spited". It is rarely used. –  Peter Shor Jun 15 '12 at 0:14
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@Jasper: good catch. That seems to be true currently, but it wasn't always true. From Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: "Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain"; Much Ado about Nothing: "If you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for yours; for I will never love that which my friend hates." –  Peter Shor Jun 15 '12 at 0:28
    
Are you sure you mean the OED and not some other Oxford dictionary? The online OED has citations showing spited used both as past tense and past participle. –  Barrie England Jun 15 '12 at 6:20
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There is at least one verb in modern English that is only used in the infinitive; namely to wit. What happened there was that wit used to be a normal verb (conjugated I wot, I wist, I have wist), but all uses except the infinitive to wit dropped out of use.

The same thing seems to be happening to the verb spite. For the verb spite, all uses except the infinitive are quite rare in modern English, and it is conceivable they will vanish completely relatively soon. It appears that in Shakespeare's time, the use of spite was not restricted to the infinitive:

And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under name of perfect love; — Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare.

Searching Shakespeare, it looks like he uses spite in the infinitive 4 times, and in other conjugations 3 times.

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What about I wist not that he was the high priest? –  TimLymington Jun 16 '12 at 12:30
    
That's the past tense: I didn't know that he was the high priest. –  Peter Shor Jun 16 '12 at 12:37
    
Er, yes. So not the infinitive, then. –  TimLymington Jun 16 '12 at 13:16
    
But that was also written 400 years ago, before wit was an infinitive-only verb. I see I should have said contemporary English rather than modern English. –  Peter Shor Jun 16 '12 at 13:18
    
It is interesting that "unwitting" is still in use, but not "witting". –  Lawton Jun 16 '12 at 14:51
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Unfortunately, rhyming words are not a reliable test. See Wikipedia: English irregular verbs

And, for that matter, if its bite/bit and smite/smote, then what exactly does that say about "spite" anyway? That we should pick a random vowel? :)

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My OED (2nd ed, 1989) does not say spite as a verb can only be used in the infinitive, nor does it say it has no past tense. When the past tense isn't specifically listed, it is regular. Many example quotes give spited as the past tense and part participle.

There is one sense of the verb spite that's limited to the phrase to spite (one), i.e. in the infinitive. Here, it has a specific meaning; it is transitive, taking a person as object. However, there are other senses too. The infinitive isn't the only possible usage.

Learner's dictionaries like OALD and LDOCE tend to have limited senses or usages for certain words, showing learners only the most common usages, just like they only list a subset of the vocabulary as headwords and limit the definition words to 2000.

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