Unit 11: Infinitive Usages
Modal verbs, as you have already learned, are accompanied by a dependent infinitive without zu (to) because the “to” is inherent in the modal: Er muß gehen (He has to go). However, both English and German employ common verbs such as “to begin,” that we use with a dependent infinitive (“It begins to rain.”). Likewise, adding a bit more complexity, both English and German use dependent infinitives that have their own predicates (“It is his plan to develop a new engine.”).
Verbs with infinitives and zu
Heute beginnt es zu schneien.
Today it (begins / is beginning) to snow.
Wir haben beschlossen, unsere Ferien in Deutschland zu verbringen.
We have decided to spend our holiday in Germany.
Der Ingenieur versucht, einen neuen Plan zu entwickeln.
The engineer is trying to develop a new plan.
The dependent infinitive stands, as usual, in final position in the sentence, but it is preceded by a zu. If the dependent infinitive involves an entire phrase, as in our second and third examples, this phrase is separated from the main clause by a comma. Note that the structure of longer infinitive phrases appears to an English speaker to be in reverse order.
When the dependent infinitive is a separable-prefix verb, the zu appears between the prefix and the stem of the verb, as in:
Er vergaß, das Fenster aufzumachen.
He forgot to open the window.
Modal verbs can also appear in these constructions:
Ich hoffe, eines Tages deutsche Zeitungen ohne Wörterbuch lesen zu können.
I hope to be able to read German newspapers without a dictionary someday.
In the same way English does, German permits infinitive phrases to refer to completed actions, by using an infinitive form of present-perfect tense. Compare the preceding, modal example with the following, completed-action example. Notice how the helping verb of the present-perfect tense (in this case, haben) fits into the phrase at the same place the modal verb did above:
Sie verspricht, vor nächster Woche eine deutsche Zeitung gelesen zu haben.
She promises to have read a German newspaper before next week.
She promises that she will have read a German newspaper before next week.
Here is an extensive but not exhaustive list of German verbs that can be used with dependent infinitives and zu. Your will notice that they are, for the most part, counterparts of English verbs which function in the same way.
anfangen / beginnen to begin aufhören to stop / to cease befehlen to order beschließen to decide brauchen to need drohen to threaten hoffen to hope pflegen to be used to (in the habit of) scheinen to seem / to appear vergessen to forget verlangen to demand vermögen to be capable versprechen to promise versuchen to try />to attempt wagen to risk wünschen to wish zögern to delay
Note when translating such constructions that English sometimes requires the gerund form (-ing) of the dependent verb:
Gestern fing es zu regnen an, und heute regnet es immer noch.
It started raining yesterday and it’s still raining today.
Infinitive clauses with nouns
Das ist ein Befehl, vorwärts zu ziehen.
That is a command to move forward.
Das ist ein Versuch, die neu entdeckten Mineralen zu untersuchen.
That is an attempt to test the newly discovered minerals.
- The verb sein plus zu and an infinitive
In terms of how it is translated, this construction is quite different from those above. Consider the following examples:
Dieses Buch ist zu lesen.
The book is to be read.
In Minnesota sind viele Seen zu sehen.
In Minnesota many lakes are to be seen.
It is sometimes more natural in English to express this meaning using a passive voice construction with the modal verb “must” or “can.” We could optionally translate the first sentence as “This book must be read,” or the second as “In Minnesota many lakes can be seen.” In fact, the sich lassen passive construction in the previous section, Note #4, carries a meaning similar to this construction.
Note that the above two examples do not have an adjective as the predicate of sein. When you do see an adjective there, the meaning will be easy to read, since English uses this same construction to express the same meaning:
Dieses Buch ist schwierig zu lesen.
This book is hard to read.
Bei starkem Wind wird das Boot leicht umzukippen sein.
In a strong wind, the boat will be easy to tip over.