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A fellow teacher said to me that the to~ infinitive always implies the future..."to eat", "to swim" etc. I disagreed and said that I thought it was abstract and had no tense in of itself.

He pointed out that most of the uses of the infinitive are always to do with the future....obligation, plans, promises, expectation, orders etc.

So, "I promise to eat my vegetables" is correct, because it implies the future...

but the gerund form "verb/noun +ing" cannot be used because it doesn't imply the future: "I promise eating my vegetables".

So far so good...but, I said, what about one of the most basic gerund/infinitive questions asked by students: I like swimming + I like to swim.

Here, "to swim" implies an ongoing habit. So it is not inherently in the future-tense...

My colleague countered that through usage, probably over hundreds of years, a usage developed to do with preference...(like, love etc) which formed an exception to the basic rule: Infinitive "to~" = Future.

So, my colleague believes that the infinitive is inherently in the future tense.....and the "I like to eat pineapples" preference usage is just an EXCEPTION that developed through possible misuse over time.

Is he right?

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    "I used to eat my vegetables." Nothing future about that.
    – Robusto
    Jul 3, 2015 at 10:26
  • The verb 'promise' mandates a future [wrt the time of making the promise] reference. I forgot to go is an obvious counterexample. Your colleague has a point, though; V1 to V2 often involves (at least notionally) sequentiality (decide to eat; agree to help; choose to attend; expect to fail; stop to watch; deserve to be put in prison; need to eat [soon]) though phase and inchoative structures are also common (deserve to be in prison; fail to understand; try to help; need to eat [generic]; seem to be asleep; happen to rain // start to sing; proceed to apply the ointment). Jul 3, 2015 at 10:56
  • You might like to have a look at the Wiktionary article on English catenative verbs. Jul 3, 2015 at 10:57
  • Thank you @EdwinAshworth for pointing that out~ ... catenative verbs....the plot thickens!
    – user127712
    Jul 3, 2015 at 11:00
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    Just to get on a soapbox a bit, remember that grammar is not formal logic: the rules and customs can't always be dwindled down to hard rules that make sense. In fact, most language rules just seem to be based on "that's just how we say it and it sounds wrong if you don't say it that way."
    – user124384
    Jul 3, 2015 at 15:59

2 Answers 2

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I think your colleague is wrong. Somebody has noticed a partial pattern and has elevated it to rulehood.

The use of infinitive (with and without to) vs gerund is purely syntactic, depending on the subcatgorisation frame of the matrix verb. It is only incidentally and weakly semantic.

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    Somebody has noticed a partial pattern and has elevated it to rulehood. Statement-banked. Jul 3, 2015 at 10:32
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    Colin says it all. Infinitives are so-called because they have no tense at all; finite verbs have tense, but non-finite (tenseless) verbs like infinitives and gerunds don't. However, since there is no future tense in English, practically anything can be used to imply the future, including the present tense, the progressive construction, and most modal auxiliaries, not to speak of dozens of special constructions and idioms. Since future is always available in the imagination, it's often invoked in the interpretation, and having no tense makes this easier. Jul 3, 2015 at 12:43
  • Thank you everyone for the comments and answers. I think that we can agree that the infinitive by definition is without tense. BUT...when it comes to explaining to a student when to use a gerund and when to use an infinitive.....aren't~ "GERUND: real or completed actions... INFINITIVE: unreal, general, or future" useful definitions? I suppose the abstract infinitive is never a completed act, right. It is always open and can indicate the future as @JohnLawler points out. Thoughts?
    – user127712
    Jul 4, 2015 at 23:32
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    I have no idea where those prescriptions came from; they're vague enough to be useless, but they sound like they work, as long as you don't look too close or ask too many questions. Generally, complementizer choice is governed by the predicate taking the complement, and not by any handwaving "unreal, general, or future" conditions. More remarks on the subject by McCawley might be useful. Or not, depending on what you need. Jul 5, 2015 at 0:08
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A fellow teacher said to me that the to~ infinitive always implies the future.

The teacher is wrong.

By their very nature, "to" infinitives do not have a tense. Any time frame comes entirely from the context and usually the active verb.

He will tell me how to do it. / He is telling me how to do it. / He told me how to do it.

There is a "past infinitive using the "to have" infinitive: "To have lost one parent is unfortunate." but the "to have" infinitive, itself does not have a tense.

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  • Note that in all of 'He will tell me how to do it.' / 'He is telling me how to do it.' / 'He told me how to do it.' there is an implication of the (deictic) future (in the non-linguistic sense). Jan 16, 2021 at 19:13

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