Writing Exercises 19-23





A second merciful substitute for a plodding clause in a sentence is the infinitive, which is formed by putting to in front of the base verb, e.g., to run, to walk, to sit, to crawl.  Unlike the gerund, however, which can only be used as a substitute for a noun, the infinitive may be used as a noun, as an adjective, or as an adverb.  Here, for example, the infinitives function as subjects:


To err is human; to forgive is divine.


In the following two examples the infinitives function as replacements for a variety of noun phrases:


To say this is not to condemn the age, but to discern its fate.  (Jacques Barzun)


To review the concept of identity means to sketch its history.  (Erik Erikson)



Here the infinitive is being used as an adjective that modifies the direct object place:


She was looking for a place to crash for the evening, her arms heavy, her back aching, her soul exhausted from the endless ogling and the even ruder pinching which had accompanied her all the way from the Athens terminal.  "My God, these Greeks," she was heard muttering to herself, fending off still another assault on her very American notions of privacy, "What pigs!"


And here the infinitive is being used as an adverb that modifies the entire clause Solomon rolled up his sleeve, clenched his fist, and then punched the ass in the middle of its forehead:


Never one to practice the subtle art of argumentation, Solomon rolled up his sleeve, clenched his fist, and then punched the ass in the middle of its forehead to gain its attention.  Needless to say, he was successful.


Infinitives, however, are most often thought of in connection with the main verb as phrases that are attached to the verb using right-branching free modification.  In this common position, infinitive phrases are important stylistic assets since they allow both for massive amounts of expansion while also retaining parallel construction for clarity and for organization.  In the next example, the main verb in the base clause marks the beginning, while the remaining infinitive phrases do the primary work of the sentence through careful modulation:


As I was reading my essay, I began to wait for it, and to make spaces in my sentences, to enjoy it, and finally to play with the words and with the audience, to swoop and to glide and to describe my prose arabesques with all of the abandon of a championship skater.  (Shana Alexander)


Or a more familiar excerpt, perhaps? 


Space.  The final frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, her five-year mission to reach out and to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, to boldly go where no man has gone before.


Finally, here are two more examples of Captain Kirk's "infinitives of purpose," the first is used to lead off the sentence as a free frontal modifier, while the second is attached to the main verb:


To return to the center of the Romantic scene, the testimony of Coleridge and Wordsworth implies that the main initial agent in the revitalizing of Greek myth was the Romantic religion of nature.  (Douglas Bush, Pagan Myth and Christian Tradition in English Poetry)


I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.  (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)



EXERCISE 19 -- Write 1 sentence using an infinitive as a subject.  Imitate the “To err is human” example.


EXERCISE 20 -- Write 1 sentence using an infinitive as an adjective.  Imitate the woman in Athens example.


EXERCISE 21 -- Write 1 sentence using an infinitive as an adverb.  Imitate the Solomon’s donkey example.


EXERCISE 22 -- Write 1 short paragraph in imitation of the Shana Alexander example using infinitives in a right-branching series.  Pay particular attention to the different lengths of your sentences, to the internal rhythms of each sentence, to parallel construction, and to the final pacing of your overall paragraph. 


EXERCISE 23 -- Write 1 sentence using an "infinitive of purpose" in imitation of the Captain Kirk example.


Compiled by Jesse Easley (2005).