Grammar rules in any language can be tough to master for non-native speakers, but English really, really sucks. We have rules, and we have exceptions, and then we have exceptions to the exceptions. And then we have stuff that MAKES. NO. SENSE. AT. ALL. — except it’s the way it’s done.
One of my faithful blog readers wrote to ask me about a sentence he had written that he wasn’t sure of. And actually, the sentence was fine!
But then I saw these few words: “We must to accept” and “We must to support,” and I wrote him a personal message to alert him to them. And funnily enough, he went through his post and found a couple more I hadn’t seen. Awesome job, Dr. A!
The issue is the use of the infinitive form of the verb, which in English is two words, always starting with “to.” To vote / to sit / to eat / to read — those are all examples of the infinitive form.
But using the infinitive form can be tricky; much of it relies on some small rules many of us never learned, three of which I’m showing you below.
For instance, it’s fine to write or say “We need to go now.” But it’s NOT fine to write or say “We must to go now.”
Why? Well, here are the three rules most of us never learned:
1. Leave off the “to” after modal auxiliary verbs can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would.
- You should call ahead to make a reservation. (NOT: should to call)
- I shall speak to him later today. (NOT: shall to speak)
- John might go to the movies this afternoon. (NOT: might to go)
- Alex will call the restaurant shortly. (NOT: will to call)
- Harley may visit the museum on his trip. (NOT: may to visit)
- Shenoy can move readers to tears with his blogs. (NOT: can to move)
2. Also leave off the “to” after dare, had better, feel, hear, let, make, see, and watch.
- You had better see if the game is on TV now! (NOT: had better to see)
- You need not speak to him in that tone. (NOT: need not to speak)
- Sarah made me cry with her words. (NOT: made me to cry)
- I saw him feed the giraffe at the zoo! (NOT: saw him to feed)
- I don’t let my dogs run free. (NOT: let my dogs to run)
- Did you hear him say that he was leaving soon? (NOT: hear him to say)
BUT: With “need,” sometimes we use “to” and sometimes we don’t. It just depends on the sentence.
- Neil needs to wait his turn.
- Neil need not wait for his turn.
- Neil does not need to wait for his turn.
3. Use the full infinitive (with “to”) if you’re writing or speaking with passive voice.
- I was asked to wait. (NOT: I was asked wait.)
- I was made to wait. (NOT: I was made wait.)
- He was helped to lift the box. (NOT: was helped lift)
What’s funny and sad is that I had NO idea there were rules for this; I guess as a native English speaker I never questioned why I sometimes put “to” before a verb or sometimes didn’t. For me — and I’m pretty sure most of my readers — one way just sounded better than the other! It’s possible, however, that someone did mention these rules to me when I was a kid . . . who listened back then?
But if English isn’t your native language — or if it is and you have forgotten as much as you learned — these small distinctions can get lost.
And here’s a Web site that offers some help for this particular issue: English Grammar
I hope this helps more than it confuses . . . and remember, I will answer your questions or proofread any one page of your writing to help you see some things you might want to focus on.