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I cannot grasp any semantic difference, in discussions of grammar matters, between quoting full infinitives (with “to”) or bare infinitives (without “to”). Thus I do not understand why the longer form is used at all.

In which circumstances is it better to speak of “the verb to dance” rather than “the verb dance”?

Where does the custom of using the full infinitive originate?

Dictionary entries for verbs do not seem to include “to”; for instance, in the Merriam-Webster and the Collins (current online editions), “dance” is an entry, but not “to dance”, nor “dance (to)”.

  • @EdwinAshworth If you can find some backing links for that it seems more like an answer than a comment. – John Clifford Nov 3 '17 at 11:09
  • @John Clifford I applied triage before I decided not to try finding supporting evidence. I have to pick the car up later. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 3 '17 at 11:11
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    The "to" derives historically from the preposition "to" (cf. the strong similarity in meaning between "I went to the doctor" and "I went to see the doctor") but long ago lost its prepositional properties. There is no verb "to dance": the verb is just "dance". English doesn't have an 'infinitive' form of the verb like, say, French does. It is only in clause structure that this "to" occurs, where it functions as a 'marker' for verb phrases of infinitival clauses. It is not part of the verb itself, which of course explains why the term 'split infinitive' is misleading. – BillJ Nov 3 '17 at 11:40
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    @Davo Apologies; losing it. Corrected version: Just opinion, but (a) the to-infinitive is probably used in constructions more often than the base form; (b) the infinitive marker clearly shows that an intercategorial polysemic noun is not intended (to dance / dance). 50 years ago, many dictionary listings included the infinitive-marking particle. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 3 '17 at 23:09
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    Pal, I've up-voted your Question because I'd love a good answer, too… and I don't remember why I suggested re-wording. Sorry. It might simply be democracy. I suggest that on or off the Clapham Omnibus, Joe Public is quite sure both the name and the infinitive form of any verb are not verb but to verb. I confess, after 60 years being generally interested, I don't recall ever even hearing the suggestion that there could be bare infinitives, without to until I came here. – Robbie Goodwin Nov 4 '17 at 18:43
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I think there are a few factors here.

One is that, despite the use–mention distinction familiar to linguists and philosophers, most people don't fully distinguish uses from mentions; it's most comfortable to define a word by using it as the subject of a sentence, and with verbs that means using either the to-infinitive or the gerund: "To dance is to move your body artistically", "Dancing is moving your body artistically", "Dancing is when you move your body artistically", etc.

Another is that, due in large part to analogy with Latin, there's a grammatical tradition of treating the to-infinitive as if it were a single unit that should not be "split" (because its Latin counterpart is a single word: esse "to be", habere "to have", etc.).

A third is conventions resulting from the above. You point out that Merriam-Webster has an entry for dance rather than to dance; but its definitions all start with "to"! (Likewise, for the countable noun, the headword is dance rather than a dance, but the definitions all start with "a" or "an".) This distinction is a bit too fine for most people; granted, no one bats an eye at "The verb dance means 'to move one's body rhythmically'", but it's all too natural to make it consistent by dropping a "to" ("The verb dance means 'move one's body rhythmically'") or adding one ("The verb to dance means 'to move one's body rhythmically'"), the latter usage being the one that caught your attention.

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So, the verb "to dance" is meant to describe the act of "dancing", which is also a verb. However, the verb "dance" is used to actively convey the action in the present. So, if you were to say that you wanted to "dance", you would then use the phrase "to dance" to help describe your desires. If you wanted to use the word "dance", you would use it when you wanted to actively carry out the action. It's also based on the situation you're using it for. That's the key difference.

  • It seems you’re trying to explain common usage. My question is about metalinguistic uses. – Philippe-André Lorin Nov 10 '17 at 0:28
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Use of the infinitive to define verbs is a remnant of classical education. It originates from the conjugation of verbs in Latin. Because Latin uses inflections (or suffix-ish particles) to denote mood, person, number, tense and voice, there are a multitude of possible forms for any one verb, depending on how it is being used. Memorising the conjugations of verbs and the declensions of nouns is therefore essential to comprehension. Fortunately, the full conjugation of a verb can generally be derived from only its Principal Parts (hence this is how a verb appears in a Latin dictionary). These are the the present indicative first person singular, the infinitive, the perfect infinitive first person singular, and the perfect passive participle: amo (I love); amare (to love); amavi (I loved); amatus (loved). Of these Principal Parts, the infinitive is the least liable to variation in usage, and thus it is the most convenient and clear way to describe a verb.

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    Hmm... I think the first-person-singular has been, and still is, relatively popular as the citation form of Latin verbs. Wiktionary uses it. Related Latin SE questions: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/2004/…, latin.stackexchange.com/questions/63/… – sumelic Nov 11 '17 at 5:40
  • Yes, I agree. Thank you for the interesting links. I would not pretend to prescribe any method of citation. Classical lexicographers are notoriously quirky; it's probably the only characteristic they have in common! Speaking personally, the infinitive form carries a distant echo of the murmuring drone of ancient schoolmasters. – Sagacious Ewe Nov 11 '17 at 7:00
  • I fail to understand how this is related to my question. I also fail to understand the need to refer to Latin, as English lexicographers too found it relevant to mention various principle parts in dictionaries when needed, such as for irregular verbs. – Philippe-André Lorin Nov 11 '17 at 11:14
  • Did you read the links @sumelic provided, @Pal? You are not posing a new question. Latin instruction had been the cornerstone of all education in Europe centuries before there was even any formal English grammar to study, let alone the first English dictionary. Ask yourself how Dr Johnson himself became so erudite. You might obtain some insight into your failure to understand the answer that I offered in good faith to your question. – Sagacious Ewe Nov 19 '17 at 9:55

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