There seems to be a subtle difference between the infinitive form of the verb 'to be' after a verb and the inflected form of the same; what is it?

This effect, if there is one, seems most noticeable in (or only applies to) some sentences that reference a subject's beliefs.

John claims to be Michael Jackson's reincarnation.

John claims that he is Michael Jackson's reincarnation.

John believes Michael Jackson to be reincarnated.

John believes that Michael Jackson is reincarnated.

If the inflected and infinitive form of the verb 'to be' convey things that are subtly different, what is that difference?

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    There is a grammatical difference, but semantically, the two constructions mean precisely the same thing to me. I can’t squeeze out even the slightest difference in nuance between them. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 17 '13 at 20:36
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    @JanusBahsJacquet If I didn't have reason to believe otherwise, I'd agree with you (this isn't only based on a hunch). – Hal Nov 17 '13 at 20:48
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    Please update your question, in that case, to reflect what it is that makes you think that it is so. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 17 '13 at 20:50
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    This is discussed in a similar context here. – John Lawler Nov 17 '13 at 22:07
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    To my ear there is a little more of the speaker's suspicion/doubt in the veracity of the claim with the infinitive construction. It's slight, though. And I agree with Barrie England above that the infinitive construction also reads as more formal. – MunchyWilly Nov 18 '13 at 3:23

First, those constructions are more different grammatically, more so than meaning. To be functions differently in your examples (neither is wrong and their meanings are the same); it's not functioning as a verb. Full infinitives usually function as other parts of speech.

John (subject) claims (verb) to be Michael Jackson's reincarnation (noun clause/object).

John (subject of 1st clause) claims (verb) that (conjucntion) he is (2nd clause with he as subject and is as verb) Michael Jackson's reincarnation (noun clause/object of 2nd clause).

Second, if forced to say there were a difference--which there isn't, frankly--it'd be the degree of certainty. The infinitive forms (i.e. to be) indicate that the assertion is less certain than when you use the inflected form (i.e. in this case, is). In other words John believes that Michael Jackson is reincarnated. is the strong/emphatic--for lack of a better word--form.

Also, I believe that it is an issue of formality, but I can't locate a source to confirm that.

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  • Basically, I agree. It's subtle, but in the example given, "to be" seems to hold the claim at arms length, to imply a more cynical pose. "To be" feels colder, "is" feels warmer & more on-the-nose. – Clay Bridges Dec 6 '13 at 16:54

According to Michael Swan (Practical English Usage 2nd Edition), in an informal style, after such verbs, -that constructions are more common. Also, -that can be dropped to make sentences just that little bit more informal.

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  • You're right in that, when used as a conjunction, that can sometimes be omitted; but that only works with certain verbs. I'd say better to add that than omit it. Extraneous isn't necessarily wrong. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 20:47

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