dear community!

In morphology, there is this concept of inherent inflection vs. contextual inflection, which is mainly associated with the Dutch morphologist Geert Booij. In the case of inherent inflection, the choice of form is determined by what the speaker wants to express. The difference in form entails a difference in meaning (e.g. plural forms of nouns, past tense of verbs). In contextual inflection, on the other hand, the choice of a particular inflectional form is determined by the syntactic context. The difference in form does not always entail a difference in meaning (e. g. grammatical person and number in verb inflection or case agreement in languages with grammatical cases). Booij considers infinitives as inherent inflections without justifying this. I find it difficult to fit the category of infinitives into this system at all. Can you think of any reasons why infinitives might be an inherent category?

Many thanks in advance, Chris

  • 1
    Perhaps it's all about the cases where you can choose which verbal to use when the choice can affect the meaning, and you choose the infinitive because its meaning is exactly what you want to express, e.g. ‘I saw you dance’ vs. ‘I saw you dancing’, here it's inherent. On the other hand, there are lots of cases where using the infinitive is conditioned by the sentence structure and the syntactic context, e.g. in ’I can do it’ and ‘please, help me do it’, do is a contextual infinitive and no other form fits those constructions unless you paraphrase them substantially.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 9:44
  • @YellowSky I hadn't thought of the cases where you can choose between infinitv and gerund in English. Thank you for this example. But firstly, the choice of the inflectional category infinitive does not seem to be exclusively inherently justified in this example either, because there is a syntactic bond with the verb whose complement is the gerund/finitive. The difference becomes clear when one compares this with a purely inherent category, such as the past tense of verbs. The ending of the preterite -ed "played" provides only semantic information without being syntactically determined in any
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 11:08
  • @YellowSky Secondly, I wonder how common this choice is in other languages. I can't think of any examples in the languages I work in. In German, there is something like: Er wird gesehen. - with a passive auxiliary 'werden' and a past participle form of '(to) see' vs. Er wird sehen. - with futural auxiliary 'werden' and a infinitive form of '(to) see'. Apart from the fact that I am not even sure whether the auxiliary verb in both cases has the same etymological origin, they are two fundamentally different auxiliary verbs in use, which is why I would not speak of inherent inflection here.
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 11:10
  • 1
    In European languages, the infinitive form is usually inflected (i.e, there is an infinitive suffix), and almost always the citation form for the verb. In English there's no inflection (except for be), but infinitive use is usually contextual. Some people's English may have no infinitives -- the root is good enough; a lot of English speakers pay little attention to inflection and speak thoroughly analytic languages.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 13:54

1 Answer 1


Based on that description, I would also think the infinitive is morphologically required by the surrounding context. But I'll try to make an argument for the opposite view.

In syntax, I've heard these called interpretable features (markings that are semantically part of that same word and used when interpreting it) and uninterpretable features (markings that are attached by agreement, in order to match the interpretable features of something else in the sentence). This is slightly broader than Booij's morphological definition, because I would say that e.g. German nouns have an interpretable gender feature, even though it's usually not explicitly marked on the noun. But it is something that you choose for the noun (the speaker can convey different meaning by saying See (m) "lake" vs See (f) "ocean") that then applies uninterpretable markings to other parts of the sentence (der See, die See).

In this model, I would call most English verb inflections uninterpretable on the verb, specifically because English verb inflections seem to come from some other head than the verb itself. That's why the T (or I) category is posited in English syntax:

I Tpres like this.
I Tpast liked this.
I do like this.
I did like this.

In other words, we posit this special category because English tense marking can be "pulled" out of the verb phrase, if something else appears earlier to receive it. This is hard to explain if tense is a feature of the verb itself: how could it be torn away like that?

This tense element also seems to be outside the verb phrase itself, because it stays in its place when we move or elide the verb phrase:

I said I [finished the job], and [finish it] I did.
*I said I [finished the job], and [finished it] I.
I voted for Bob, and she [voted for Bob] too.
I voted for Bob, and she did [] too.
*I voted for Bob, and she [] too.

Thus, English syntax is often analyzed as having a "T" (or "I") element that's not always visible, which can either be visible like "did" (and take the inflection itself), or invisible like "Tpast" (and pass the inflection off to the verb).

And it's this element that the feature of tense belongs to, semantically; the verb is just where it's shown on the surface, like how gender semantically belongs to the German noun but is pronounced on the article instead. Of course, morphologically, you could consider the T and the verb to form a single unit together, in which case the unit "liked" (consisting of Tpast and "like") has an interpretable past-tense feature on it. I imagine this is how Booij would analyze it.

So what about the infinitive "to"? Well, it seems to belong to this same "T" or "I" category, since you can move or elide its verb phrase and leave it behind. And it enforces a specific inflection on the verb, rather than inheriting a form from the matrix clause:

She told him that she looked at it.
*She told him that she looks at it.
*She told him to looked at it.
She told him to look at it.

So "to", or "to look" if we're taking T+verb as a unit, clearly has an inherent tense feature on it, from a syntactic point of view.

That's why I would call the infinitive marking an inherent inflection, based on my understanding of Booij's system.

  • Thank you very much for this new perspective! So I would definitely call the interpretation of the infinitive within Booij's system a matter of perspective. It is nowhere near as clear-cut as, for example, case agreement (contextual) or the comparison of adjectives (inherent).
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 7:37
  • @Chris I agree.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 14:34

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