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Infinitives Phrases on the GMAT


The infinitive is the most basic default form of a verb.  Verbs are listed in the dictionary by their infinitive forms.  To make an infinitive, we add the preposition “to” in front of the verb: to walk, to run, to love, to buy, to sell, to be or not to be.  Even though it begins with a preposition, it is not a prepositional phrase.  It is an infinitive.

Infinitives function as nouns, and can take any role a noun can take.  For example, an infinitive can be the subject of a sentence:

1) “To err is human.” — Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD).

2) “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  — Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

3) “To err is human, but it feels divine.”  — Mae West (1893-1980) :)

An infinitive can also be the direct object of certain verbs.  The following are some verbs that idiomatically can take an infinitive as a direct object: appear, ask, claim, help, hope, know, like, make, need, persuade, propose, require, want.  The following are some verbs that idiomatically do not take an infinitive as a direct object: find, prohibit, request, reveal, succeed, suggest.


Infinitive phrases

Any grammatical role that can be filled by a simple infinitive can be filled by a full infinitive phrase.  What’s an infinitive phrase?

Well, the verb in an infinitive can have all the accoutrements of a normal verb: a direct object, adverbs, prepositional phrases, etc.  In fact, the verb of an infinitive can have a subject: that subject will always be in the objective form (me, her, him, them) as opposed to the subjective form (I, he, she, they) normally used for subjects.  Here’s an assortment of infinitives and infinitive phrases.

4) To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.

5) He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspected he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

6) A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

7) Is it necessary for me to give further examples?

The esteemed authors of these: #4 = William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a sentence from the famous soliloquy in Hamlet; #5 = Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), one of the complaints against George III in the Declaration of Independence; #6 = James Madison (1751-1836), the complete text of the Second Amendment in his Bill of Rights.  The last, considerably less lofty, is my own ironic self-referential example sentence J, one that demonstrates a pronoun in the objective form as the subject of the infinitive.

If such lofty sources use infinitive phrase, you can bet you will see them with regularity on the GMAT.  For example, in the OG13, see SC #8, #13, #15, #16, #18, #28, #34, #39, #42 and #45: those are just a few examples of OG SC problems in which an infinitive phrase plays out either as the correct answer or as part of an incorrect answer.   That’s ten examples in the first 50 practice SC questions: clearly, infinitive phrases are all over the SC section!


Here’s another practice question:


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18 Responses to Infinitives Phrases on the GMAT

  1. paresh January 20, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I came across this sentence in the Economist:

    ABC, which invests in gas services, thinks Ron’s fracking firms will eventually improve their offer, but are unlikely to stump up as much as 5% of their haul.

    Please let me know if the infinitive phrase ” to stump up as much as 5% of their haul” is an adverbial phrase modifying unlikely the adjective.


    • Mike McGarry
      Mike January 20, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      Dear Paresh,
      Kudos to you for reading the Economist, looking for their use of grammar!
      Yes. The adjective “unlikely” idiomatically takes the infinitive, and we could describe that infinitive as an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective. It answers the question “unlikely … in what way?”
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. yucheng June 13, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Dear Mike

    Could you please help me to distinguish the usage of infinitive and gerund as subjects in a sentence?


    Reading a book in the beach is a pure pleasure.
    To read a book in the beach is a pure pleasure.

    I made these two sentences up…Are they correct in their use? or do they have different meanings? In a structure where “Gerund is X”, X should be a abstractive noun, what about when infinitive is used in a similar structure?

    Thank you Mike

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike June 13, 2013 at 9:58 am #

      Dear Yucheng,
      The only thing that is idiomatically incorrect is the prepositional phrase —- we would say: I read a book *on* the beach, not *in* the beach. Other than that, both sentences are 100% grammatically correct — the first one, with the gerund as subject, sounds slightly more natural and casual, and the second sounds slighted more stilted and formal, but they are both fundamentally correct, and they both have the same meaning.
      Yes, both gerunds & infinitives encapsulate the action of a verb in noun form, and it wouldn’t make sense to equate the action of a verb to a concrete noun, like a chair or a giraffe. It only makes sense to equal the action of a verb to an abstract noun — a pure pleasure, an art, an expression of wisdom, etc. The only exception would be if the concrete noun were used in a metaphorical and poetic sense — e.g. “To love is a river of forgiveness” — there, the concrete noun “river” is used purely in an abstract, metaphorical sense, not as the literal physical thing. That’s poetry, which you will not see on the GMAT.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. abhinav May 1, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    Hi Mike,

    In example #7 the infinitive phrase is “for me to give futher examples?” and in the above mentioned example by Hannah as well it is “him to go out”.

    so, can we conclude that if there exists a subject for an infinitive in pronoun form, it must be part of infinitive phrase?

    could you please throw some light on this type of infinitive phrases?

    Thank you.

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike May 1, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Dear Abhinav,
      If the infinitive phrase has a subject, then that subject is part of the infinitive phrase. The subject of an infinitive phrase need not be a pronoun (e.g. “I want summer to come” — “summer” is the subject of the infinitive). Pronouns are often used in examples, because they make clear that the subject of an infinitive is in *objective* form, not *subjective* form. Even though it’s a subject, we don’t use (I, he, she, they) but rather (me, him, her, them). Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • abhinav May 3, 2013 at 3:46 am #

        Thanks mike!!.
        In the ex: i want summer to come . “summer to come” is our object, I , the subject. what is want? action / linking verb? how do words such as “want, wish, love” behave? are they not themselves words that express state of being?

        • Mike McGarry
          Mike May 3, 2013 at 10:40 am #

          Dear Abhinav,
          The word “want”, like the the words “want”, “wish”, “love”, “intend”, “plan”, “hope”, “expect”, are all full verbs. They are not linking verbs (a.k.a. auxiliary verb). They are true verbs. In the sentence, “I want summer to come”, “want” is the main verb of the sentence, and the object is the entire infinitive phrase “summer to come”. I suggest looking at this article:

          Mike :-)

          • abhinav May 4, 2013 at 4:09 am #

            Thanks mike!!

            • Mike McGarry
              Mike May 4, 2013 at 10:38 am #

              You are quite welcome.
              Mike :-)

  4. Yendy November 27, 2012 at 4:55 am #

    can you give me an examples sentence of infinitive phrase as object of the preposition? thank you Mike…

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike November 27, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Good question. To the best of my knowledge, that’s not possible. An infinite phrase can *include* one or more prepositional phrases (e.g. “I want to go to Spain in the spring.”), but as far as I know, it is not possible for an infinitive itself to be the *object* of a preposition.
      I hope this helps.
      Mike :-)

  5. Prakash November 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    I have been taking Magoosh classes and this blog brings to my mind a doubt that I have had since one of the SC videos

    Ex: Ismet’s decision to appoint his parakeet has caused controversy

    Ex: Kyle’s ambition is to win the state lottery

    In the first example, you say “to appoint his parakeet” is an adjective while in the second “to win the state lottery” is a noun. Let us look at the second example, here the verb is “is” which is in “to be” form. It is a linking verb. We have learned that anything that follows the linking verb is an adjective. If that is the case, how do you say “to win the state lottery” is a noun?

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike November 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

      Prakesh: I’m sorry, but I believe you misunderstand the nature of “linking verbs” — what follows a linking verb can be a noun or an adjective. For example, I can say
      “Chris is very *intelligent*” (“is” followed by adjective) or I can say “Chris is my *friend*” (“is” is followed by noun); I can say, “Jesse Owens was *fast*” (adjective) or I can say, “Jesse Owens was the *runner* who won gold at the 1936 Olympics.” (noun). Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Prakash November 26, 2012 at 5:54 am #

        Thanks Mike. Got it.

        • Mike McGarry
          Mike November 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

          You are quite welcome.
          Mike :-)

  6. Hanna August 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    Thank you for your help!
    I was looking for the explanation for 5 hours on the net . :)

    I have a question about a usage of infinitives.
    Here is a sentence.

    ” She asked him to go out.”

    In this sentence “him” is a indirect object.
    “to go out” is a direct object.

    and the meaning of the sentence is “She asked him if he would go out.”

    Am I right?

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike August 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Hanna: The sentence has the meaning you interpreted, but the parts of speech are not correct. The entire phrase “him to go out” is the infinitive phase, and that entire phrase as a whole is the direct object of the verb. The pronoun “him” is in the objective form because the subject of an infinitive is always in the objective form.
      BTW, in your second sentence, the grammatically correct way to say it is: “She asked him *whether* he would go out.”
      Does all that make sense?
      Mike :-)

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