I've seen infinitives function in a few different ways.

But in which ways can they function? I've seen infinitives function as direct objects, subjects, and a couple other ways, but how else can they act?

Some example sentences that I'm not sure how they're functioning:

"I don't know where to go" "The books to return are right here" "Emergency Room physicians struggle to prevent their own depression and burnout."

P.S I've heard infinitives for example act like complements and also modifiers, but what does this mean? (an example sentence would help)

And as a separate question: I was confused in these sentences how the subordinate clauses are functioning, although they aren't infinitivial

They have tons of speed and talent around him that can help him make big plays.

It’s so heavy that you can’t pick it up

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    Infinitivals have a wide range of functions, but not direct object (only NPs can be objects). Their main functions are subject, complement of a verb noun or adjective, adjunct, modifier of a noun. In your examples, "where to go" is an interrogative complement of "know"; "to return" modifies "books"; "to prevent their own depression and burnout" is complement of "struggle", – BillJ May 21 at 6:03
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    Thanks BillJ. You said infinitives cannot act as direct objects. Why are they called complements rather than direct objects, like in this case - "I wanted to leave." If you said "I wanted a bunny" would this be a direct object, though? – Beya May 21 at 13:18
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    I've just spotted a typo in one of my earlier comments, so I am re-posting it here: "In your last two examples, "that can help him make big plays" is a relative clause modifying "tons of speed and talent", within which is the infinitival clause "make big plays" functioning as complement of "help". Finally, "that you can’t pick it up" is a declarative content clause functioning as a complement in clause structure. – BillJ May 21 at 17:09
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    Direct objects are a sub-type of complement. Yes, the NP "a bunny" is object of "wanted", but NPs have a different structure and distribution to that of clauses: they can function as objects, but clauses can't. My re-posted comment answers your question about the clause "that can help him make big plays". I can thoroughly recommend A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, by Huddleston & Pullum. link – BillJ May 21 at 17:11
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    The infinitival clause "to have fun" is complement of "wants". "Everyone" is the syntactic direct object of "wants", and also the understood (semantic) subject of the infinitival clause. Verbs like "want" are called catenative verbs because they can form a chain, separated only in some instances by a noun, as in your example.. – BillJ May 23 at 6:04

First a definition: There are three kinds of finite subordinate clause: relative, comparative and content. The latter lacks the special properties of the other two, and is regarded as the default kind. The term 'content clause' reflects its default status: it suggests that the clause is simply selected for its semantic content.

“That you can’t pick it up” is clearly not a relative or comparative clause, so it can only be a content clause. In the sentence “It’s [so heavy that you can’t pick it up]”, the content clause “that you can’t pick it up” is a complement because it has to be licensed (specifically permitted or required) by the “so” that modifies “heavy”. We know that because if we drop “so”, the bracketed AdjP becomes ungrammatical. The AdjP “so heavy that you can’t pick it up” is subjective complement of “was” – a complement because it is an obligatory item. The content clause is complement of “heavy”

We know it’s not an extraposition construction because “it” is referential – it refers to something mentioned earlier in the discourse, whereas extrapositional “it” is just a dummy subject.

Yes, “the fact that he never calls me” is a content clause functioning as complement of “fact”. “I hate that he never calls me” is OK in AmE but rarely heard in BrE. The content clause is complement of the verb “hate”. It’s important to remember that clauses can never be objects – only NPs can.

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  • Thanks a lot BillJ! I've been reading "A student's introduction to english grammar," and it's been very useful. I haven't gotten to far into it, so I have a question I've not yet discovered about non finite clauses. In the sentence "To be wise is to have patience" (random example I came up with), is there an overt subject in the infinitivial clause? (both of them) I'm sure it says it in the book, but it would be nice to have a further explanation. (Usually there's a subject easier to find, as in "Preparing breakfast, the man flipped pancakes.") – Beya May 29 at 18:17
  • That is one of the only questions I still have: what is the subject in an infinitivial clause like the one above? I really appreciate taking your time to answer my questions by the way. – Beya May 30 at 0:49
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    No, there's no overt subject. The meaning depends on inference, in this case something like 'people in general'. – BillJ May 30 at 6:30
  • Thanks, but I'm a little confused on this: What kind of finite clause is it if the head is "while?" Let's say in this sentence, "I ate while mowing the lawn." I'm not sure which kind of category "while" would fall into. I'm not sure if this example "I ate as I mowed the lawn" also falls into the same category. – Beya Jun 2 at 12:25
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    Traditional grammar treats “while” and “as” in your examples as subordinating conjunctions, and thus “while mowing the lawn” and “as I mowed the lawn” as subordinate clauses. They are clearly not relative or comparative clauses, so they must be content clauses. The clauses function as adjuncts of time. Modern grammar looks at things a slightly different way, but I won’t confuse you with that. You’ll discover the difference as you work your way through SIEG. – BillJ Jun 2 at 13:49

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