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Consider this:

I like to eat here.


I would eat here.

It appears to me that "to" has nothing to do with the infinitive form of the verb that follows. It is, in this example, an integral part of like to, not of to go.

Is my thinking flawed? If you think it is, could you please explain which form of the verb "eat" is used in the second example, if not the infinitive?

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Don't forget that "to" can even stand alone in uses reminiscent of pronouns: "Do you like to dance? I like to". And it has been merged into some very common colloquial contractions with the preceding verb rather than the following verb: "going to" -> "gonna", "want to" -> "wanna", "got to" -> "gotta". – hippietrail Jul 24 '11 at 5:02
up vote 9 down vote accepted

It is probably a matter of definition, not of true inherent "belonging to". I believe the etymology of this kind of "to" is the usage of a preposition before the infinitive, in order to indicate a relation of direction or purpose between a finite verb and the infinitive: I went to school; I went to pick him up. This probably originated in predicates with verbs that have a direction. But that was long ago, when the infinitive still had a distinctive form in English or Proto-Germanic; I think it was something like *eatan (don't pin me down on this, I haven't looked it up). Later, when the infinitive became indistinguishable from other forms of the verb, this to evolved into a more general marker of the infinitive. So the most precise definition would probably be to say that to belongs neither to the finite verb ("like") nor to the infinitive.

That said, you could say "like often goes with to, so we say to belongs to like", or "to often introduces or links to infinitives, so we say it belongs to the infinitive". In lists of phrases, educational books often tend to emphasise the connection with like; in passages that describe the infinitive, they tend to treat it as part of the "full" infinitive, as opposed to the "bare" infinitive in "I will go". I believe this is the most traditional way to describe it.

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+1 Exactly - "to" is part of the infinitive, but only because that is what the word "infinitive" has been defined to mean :-) – psmears Jan 20 '11 at 20:27
Your etymology of the infinitive is correct. The proto-Germanic infinitive had no prefix, and the various daughter languages have used different function words to make infinitive prefixes: German "zu" and English "to" are cognate (word-initial /*t/ becomes /z/ in German), while Danish and Swedish have "at, and Norwegian has "å" (most likely descended from the same ancestor word as "og", the word for "and"). The OE infinitive is almost correct, my (Norwegian) etymological dictionary gives "etan" and proto-Germanic "etanam" (cognate Latin "edere" and Sanskrit "ad-"). – arnsholt Jan 20 '11 at 22:21
@Arnsholt: Thank you. The suffix -anam makes sense, considering that Ancient Greek has -ein and -nai. Old Dutch has -an. P.S. If og is a cognate of Swedish at, could English at be a cognate of and? And are they all cognates of Latin at, "but"? – Cerberus Jan 20 '11 at 23:22
I'm pretty sure "å" and "at" are not cognate. The words for "and" in Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are "og"/"og"/och", while "at" is a subordinator in all three languages. Latin "at" would be Norse "aþ", but it's "at" in Norse as well, but apparently it is cognate with Latin "ad" (according to Bokmålsordboka). Those Greek infinitives look like plausible cognates, but unfortunately I don't really know any Greek (and infinitives are a complicated matter). Vedic Sanskrit has several infinitives, but I don't have the books I need to see if there are any corresponding ones in Sanskrit ATM. – arnsholt Jan 21 '11 at 12:49
It seems Proto-Greek already had infinitive suffixes in -ehen, -enai and -men. A pity we don't know much about the infinitive in PIE. – Cerberus Jan 21 '11 at 15:17

Here are the two main bits of positive evidence that to is part of the infinitive.

1. It doesn't show up with nouns in the same situations.

  • I like to dance.
  • I like pizza.

Notice that to is not an inherent part of like, because even in the exact same sense of the word, if it is followed by a noun there is no to.

2. It shows up without another verb.

In phrases without a verb in front of the to, you can see it appearing:

  • To live is to dance.

For modals, as others have explained, the modal verbs do something special with the verb, as do the helper verbs "to be" and "to have". But they are a special case. Modal verbs also don't allow a gerund after them in any situation, e.g., you can't say "*I would walking" like you can with a verb that is usually followed by to. But with "like" you can say "I like to dance" and "I like dancing". Only the form of the verb is changing, from the infinitive to the gerund.

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+1, good examples. I am not so sure about "is part of the infinitive" - although it appears that it certainly was in the past. I will keep the current accepted answer as it appears to be more applicable to the modern form of English, although I'm probably not qualified to make that call... – romkyns Jan 20 '11 at 21:25
@romkyns: Well, I'm not sure what makes you think this answer applies to something other than modern English. Linguists certainly treat to as part of the infinitive, and the evidence I provide uses modern English to show that. – Kosmonaut Jan 21 '11 at 0:48
Someone has proposed a theory that I found quite compelling: that "to" evolved from a form of "do". "I like do dance" and "Do live is do dance" sounds at least somewhat plausible... Is this totally random and a complete coincidence? :) – romkyns Jul 24 '11 at 7:29

The second sentence does use the infinitive, but would is a modal verb, so it kicks out the to. Wikipedia explains:

The main verb that is modified by the modal verb is in the infinitive form and is not preceded by the word to (German: zu, Dutch: te). There are verbs that may seem somewhat similar in meaning to modal verbs (e.g. like, want), but the construction with such verbs would be different

Note how you wouldn't say "*I can to eat here" or "*I must to eat here", either.

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So this also suggests that "to" is not an integral part of the infinitive, right? – romkyns Jan 20 '11 at 14:20
Sticking with Wikipedia, "In English, a verb's infinitive is its unmarked form, such as be, do, have, or sit, often introduced by the particle to. When this particle is absent, the infinitive is said to be a bare infinitive; when it is present, it is generally considered to be a part of the infinitive, then known as the full infinitive (or to-infinitive)." – RegDwigнt Jan 20 '11 at 14:25
Huh, because I didn't think the second sentence used the infinitive, but "She would eat here." obviously does use the infinitive, not "She would eats here." – Stephen Furlani Jan 20 '11 at 14:51

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