Usually as how i understand is that a clause is defined as a group of words with a subject & a predicate yet doesn't make complete sense (like a sentence). And a phrase is a group of words with some meaning ,which is not a clause or a sentence.




Consider the following sentences:

He wants to go to the market.

In the part of sentence- 'to go to the market' there is no subject! I do recognize here 'market' which is the object here & hence a noun. (So is it an infinitival clause?)

He wants to go slowly.

In the part of sentence- 'to go slowly' there is no subject or object! There are no nouns. (But is this an infinitival clause?)

So why then there is a term called 'infinitival clause' at all? It should be 'infinitival phrase' right?

Or what is the real definition of 'Clause'?

( According to british council site, a clause means any noun/noun phrase plus any verb/verb phrase ...& so the noun can mean either a subject or an object!....so if subject is absent, look for an object..is that what I am supposed to do to call a part of sentence as 'clause'?)


1 Answer 1


This is a very good question.

It will help us here if we take a close look at the sentence involved. I've changed the pronoun he to the proper noun Bob:

  • Bob wants [to go to the market].

Now if you just take a quick look at the sentence, it will seem as if there's just one big verb phrase with the Subject Bob. However, if you think about it more slowly and carefully, you will notice that the verb want is taking an infinitival "clause". This infinitival clause means something quite different from the verb want, and we understand this clause as having its own Subject.

This is difficult to see here, because we understand the Subject of the verb want and the subject of the verb go as being the same person. Bob is doing the wanting and Bob will hopefully be doing the going too. But if we change the subject of the infinitival clause, this will become clearer. Compare these two examples:

  • Bob wants [Brenda to go to the market].
  • Bob wants [ ____ to go to the market ].

In the first example we see that the Subject of to go is Brenda. In the second example, where there is no expressed Subject, we understand the subject of to go to be the same as the Subject of want. We could model this sentence like this:

  • Bob(i) wants [ ____(i) to go to the market ]

Or maybe like this:

  • Bob wants [ Bob to go to the market].

So in this example, we might want to model the infinitival clause as having a gap in the Subject position, that refers to the same thing as the Subject of the main clause. Alternatively, we could just say that the Subject is understood, but not expressed.

Whichever way we model the sentence, we still have not only a verb phrase, but also an understood Subject which is separate from the Subject of the main clause. And if this Subject is not understood, the clause cannot make any sense.

This is one of the main reasons why we consider an infinitival clause to be a clause instead of just a verb phrase. however, there are other more complicated theoretical reasons too.

Hope this helps!

  • Araucaria - Thanks but I have a doubt though. Is there an infinitival clause in - 'He called to see my brother' ? I have a problem about the implied subject. For example, if we think it as- 'He called (me or them or him or her) to see my brother', 'me/them/him/her to see my brother' taken alone would have a standalone meaning like a clause but it will not have the same meaning as the 'original sentence'. Latter says that its 'He' (the person who called) who wants to see my brother & not 'me/them/him/her. But the isolated clause alters the meaning. Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 8:17
  • Araucaria - Or is it that 'to see my brother' just an adverbial phrase? If so ,isn't 'call' used here as intransitive verb? Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 8:19
  • @CuriousMind Yes, that's right. In He called me to see his brother, the infinitival clause is an adjunct/adverbial. Verbs like want are often called control verbs, they are very common. But as you have guessed, not every infinitive afte a verb is a complement of the veb, and not all verbs are control verbs! Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 10:52
  • @CuriousMind In your example the infinitive is an infinitive of purpose. It explains why someone did something. With infinitives of purpose the subject of the infinitival clause is never expressed and is always interpreted as being the same as the subject of the main verb. It doesn't matter about whether there is a direct object or not, and as you noticed, these are adjuncts (adverbials), not complements. Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 11:10

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