40

Like the title says: I don't think "to can" is right :)

I mean "can" as in to be able to. I'm aware of other meanings.

I can't find the answer here. (There's What is an "infinitive"? which sidesteps this precise case). Online dictionaries draw a blank (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/can, e.g.).

I'm looking for some official indication that the infinitive doesn't exist for this irregular verb.

It would be nice if someone could share any information on how this has evolved to be the case.

  • 2
    Can is, to a very, very limited degree, starting to develop a new infinitive can in variations of Doge. The very frequent phrase “I can’t even” has been humorously extended to “I’ve lost the ability to can”, and this has caught on. I’ve never seen this infinitive used anywhere outside this; but it is a clear case of the uninflected present form being used as an infinitive, albeit for effect. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 '14 at 13:51
61

"Can" is a modal verb and doesn't have an infinitive

See "Defective verbs":

Defective verbs

The modal auxiliary verbs, can, may, shall, will and must are defective in that they do not have infinitives; so, one cannot say, *I want him to can do it, but rather must say, I want him to be able to do it. The periphrases to be able to, to have to and to be going to are generally used in these cases.

27

The word "can," meaning to put in a can, has the infinitive "to can."

The modal verb "can," meaning to be able, is invariable and defective, the latter meaning it has no infinitive or participle forms.

  • Note that in some accents, notably Philadelphia, these two can verbs are not homophones. – Robert Columbia Jan 22 at 21:48
16

Not all verbs have infinitives. From Wikipedia:

Defective verbs

The modal auxiliary verbs, can, may, shall, will and must are defective in that they do not have infinitives; so, one cannot say, *I want him to can do it, but rather must say, I want him to be able to do it. The periphrases to be able to, to have to and to be going to are generally used in these cases.

4

I think the closest thing to an infinitive to can is to be able to

Check out this link of conjugations.

3

Modals are their own unique creatures and do not take infinitive or gerund forms; that is, unless you are e.e. cummings. Only he would put syntax together with such grammatical constructions as "And she to should and he shoulding under the covers of a dream."

0

I agree with one of the above posts--that the closest to conceptualizing an infinitive is "to be able." We can confirm this by looking to any of the Romance languages to which English is closely related. For example, to express "can" in French (je peux parler l'anglais=I can speak English), we would use the infinitive pouvoir, "to be able to."

  • 2
    The problem with your logic is that pouvoir is not a "defective verb" in the way that [can] is in English. This is the problem with trying to prove something about language X with evidence from language Y -- they are two separate languages, common roots notwithstanding. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 4 '13 at 8:18
  • Yup. And wikipedia was quick to suggest the periphrasis. Anyways, I'd been using that all my life, so that was also a bit of a moot point. – sehe Feb 4 '13 at 8:21
  • Similarly in Spanish, the verb poder would be used. "Yo puedo hablar inglés" -> "I can speak English", "Quiero poder hacerlo" -> "I want to be able to do it". – Robert Columbia Jan 22 at 21:50

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:38

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.