Sunday, November 30, 2014

Relative infinitive clauses - uses and exercises

We can sometimes replace a relative pronoun and finite verb with an infinitive. This is sometimes called a relative infinitive clause, or infinitival relative clause. This happens more often with defining relative clauses, but can also occur with non-defining clauses:
  • The first person to speak at the conference was an expert on ...
    (= the first person who spoke ...)
  • Jenny is definitely somebody to keep an eye on.
    (= somebody who you should keep an eye on)
  • The chemist gave her some tablets, to be taken three times a day.
    (= which should be taken / were to be taken)

When can we do this?

There doesn't appear to be a lot of information about this in standard EFL books, but there seem to be two main contexts where we can use an infinitive in a relative clause.
The first gets some space in advanced grammar books, but the second gets hardly a mention, at least not in the context of relative clauses.

1. Replacing normal tenses

Here, the noun before the infinitive is the subject of the relative infinitive clause:
  • My aunt was the first person to leave.
    (= who/that left)
  • The next train to leave from Platform 5 is the 17.30 to Bristol.
    (= which/that leaves)
  • She's the youngest player ever to have been honoured in this way.
    (= who/that has been honoured)
  • He was the only one to finish the course.
    (= who/that finished)
This is most commonly used with nouns describing general categories, such as person, student, bus, one etc. This is only used in defining clauses, and here the infinitive is equivalent to the relative pronoun + verb in a present or past tense. Passives are also possible. The noun before the infinitive is preceded by a 'restrictive' marker. These are:
  • ordinal numbers - first, second etc;
  • so-called 'general ordinals' - next, last, only
  • superlative adjectives - the best etc
It can also occasionally happen with other constructions
  • A significant point to (have) come out of the research
    (= that has come out)

The use of perfect and continuous infinitives

We often seem to have a choice between a simple infinitive and a perfect infinitive. My own feeling is that we are more likely to use a perfect infinitive when we want to stress that an action is finished, but I have no evidence to back that up.
When replacing present simple we use a simple to-infinitive (1b). When replacing past simple and present perfect we can often use a simple or perfect infinitive without much change in meaning (2b), and the same is true for present perfect (3b).
  1. a The next contestant who answers correctly will get a bonus point.
    b The next contestant to answer correctly wil get bonus points.
  2. a Newton was the first person who understood gravity.
    b Newton was the first person to understand / to have understood gravity.
  3. a The only person who has seen her recently is Martin.
    b The only person to see / to have seen her recently is Martin.
Present continuous can be replaced by an -ing form infinitive (1b). Past continuous can usually be replaced by an -ing form infinitive or a perfect -ing form infinitive (2b). But in both cases we're probably more likely to use a reduced relative participle clause (1c, 2c) than an infinitive.
  1. a She's the only person who is taking the test.
    b She's the only person to be taking the test.
    c She's the only person taking the test.
  2. a He was the only person who was living there at the time.
    b He was the only person to be living / to have been living there at the time.
    c He was the only person living there at the time.
Exercise 1Rewrite the sentences using a relative infinitive, as in the example. For this exercise, replace perfect tenses with perfect infinitives. Don't use any punctuation.
Eg. Emily has recently got married. She is the first of my sisters who has done so.
Emily is the first of my sisters to have got married.
1. Jones has signed with United. He is the latest player who has done so.
Jones is with United.
2. Christopher Chatterway broke the four minute mile. He was the first athlete who did.
Christopher Chatterway was the four minute mile.
3. Marie Curie won a Nobel prize in two different disciplines. She is the only person who has done so.
Marie Curie is a Nobel prize in two different disciplines.
4. Samantha arrived first and left last.
Samantha was the to leave.
5. Mike Careless has signed the petition. He is the most famous actor who has signed.
Mike Careless is the petition
6. The next one of you lot who makes a sound will have to stay on after class.
will have to stay on after class.
7. This is the best thing that has happened in a long time.
It's the best in a long time.
8. He wasn't the only reporter who questioned the official line.
He wasn't the only reporter
9. No woman has received this honour before.
She is the first this honour.
10. Nobody saw him alive after she did. (person)
She was the alive.
11. They selected him first.
He was .
12. Somebody else has already asked me that question today. (person)
You are the that question today.

2. Replacing certain modal constructions

Relative infinitives are used with certain modal meanings. They often have a similar meaning to - relative pronoun (+ subject pronoun) + modal
  • the person to speak to = the person who you should speak to
  • a book to read = a book (that) I can read
  • a lot to do = a lot that we need to do
  • flavours to suit all tastes = flavours that will suit all tastes


Infinitives can sometimes replace expressions with the meaning of should:
  • the person to ... = the person who you should ...
  • the one to ... = the one that you should ...
  • the thing to ... = the thing that we should ...
  • the way to ... = the way in which you should ...
  • the place to ... = the place where we should ...
  • the time to ... = th time when you should ...
We can use this with all persons, and the noun + to-infitive combination can either come after the verb be or act as the subject.
  • Mary's the person to talk to.
    (= Mary's the person who/that you should talk to.)
  • The person to talk to is standing over there.
    (= The person who/that you should talk to is standing over there.)
Exercise 2Rewrite the sentences using a relative infinitive, as in the example. Keep active verbs active, and passive verbs passive and don't use any punctuation.
Eg. The question you should ask yourself is - how much do I want it?
The question to ask yourself is - how much do I want it?
1. I'm not really the person who you should ask.
I'm not really .
2. The thing we should do is talk to Mary about it.
The thing to talk to Mary about it.
3. In the next race, Jenny Peters is the one we should watch.
In the next race, Jenny Peters .
4. Look, you should do it this way.
Look, this is .
5. You should go in September, when it's not so full of tourists.
The time , when it's not so full of tourists.
6. The place you should stay is the Old Mill Inn. It's absolutely wonderful.
The Old Mill Inn . It's absolutely wonderful.


We can do the same with the meaning of which/who/that + I/we can etc. This often occurs after words like anybody, something etc,
  • I need a book to read for the journey.
    (= which/that I can read)
  • Have you got something to listen to in the car?
    (= which/that we can listen to)

for us, him etc

In this sense we could often insert for + pronoun before the infinitive.
  • The best time (for us) to go would be September.
  • It's not such a bad thing (for her) to do.
  • A good book (for you) to read on the subject is ...
  • Come on, it's time (for us) to go.
Exercise 3Choose suitable words from the box to complete the sentences. Type the word into the appropriate space.
anybody · anything · anywhere · dress · job · magazine · nobody · nothing · paper · place · shoulder · somewhere
1. Isn't there to look after him?(= who can look after him)
2. I'll need to get a new to wear for the party.(= which I can wear)
3. I'm bored, there's to do round here.(= that I can do)
4. Is there to eat? I'm starving.(= which I can eat)
5. She's gone to buy a to read on the train.(= that she can read)
6. We've found to stay, by the way.(= where we can stay)
7. Have you got any to wrap this up in?(= that I can wrap this up in)
8. Why is there never to sit?.(= where we can sit)
9. We need a to stay for the night.(= where we can stay)
10. Has she got a to go to when she gets there?(= that she can go to)
11. It's not fair! I've got to play with.(= who I can play with)
12. We all need a to cry on, now and then.(= that we can cry on)

need to, have to, must

With certain quantifiers, such as a lot, several, plenty, and adjectives suggesting a large extent, such as extensive, long, the meaning is often more to do with necessity or obligation. This often involves a there is/are construction, and words such as still and before:
  • There are several candidates still to interview.
    (= that we still have to interview)
  • There are a number of problems to be dealt with.
    (= that need to be dealt with)
Exercise 4Rewrite the sentences using a relative infinitive,as in the example. Keep active verbs active, and passive verbs passive and don't use any punctuation.
Eg. We still have a long way we need to go on this project.
There is still a long way to go on this project.
1. We still have to do a lot before we can call it a day.
There before we can call it a day.
2. We still need to discuss one or two points.
There .
3. That will give us plenty that we must think about.
That .
4. An extensive series of tests must be passed before we can proceed.
There is before we can proceed.
5. Several questions still have to be answered.
There .
6. They have another three matches they need to win in order to qualify.
They in order to qualify.


Sometimes the only possible interpretation seems to be 'that will', (or possibly 'for')
  • We have products to suit all pockets.
    (= that will suit all pockets / for all pockets)

need / will

When certain nouns, for example, points, issues, problems, are the subject of the main clause, the meaning could either suggest necessity or simply that something will happen
  • Measures to deal with the problem have been put in place.
    (= which are needed to deal with the problem / that will deal with the problem)
Exercise 5Complete the sentences using a relative infinitive.
1. They offer a range of gifts that will appeal to today's value-focused shoppers.
They offer a range of gifts today's value-focused shoppers.
2. It was certainly a day we will remember.
It was certainly .
3. Points which will be considered include costs and time restraints.
Points include costs and time restraints.
4. Certain steps have been taken which will solve the problem.
Certain steps have been taken .
5. These are the proposals that will be discussed at tomorrow's meeting.
These are the proposals at tomorrow's meeting.


Relative infinitive clauses are often used with prepositions and prepositional verbs.
Exercise 6Fill each gap with a suitable preposition
1. I'd like to go to the cinema, but I've nobody to go .
2. Oh, this chocolate cake really is to die .
3. See if you can find a rug to sit for the picnic.
4. Have you anything to open this bottle of wine ?
5. Is there some sort of container to put these ?
6. They've got a large family to provide .
7. Here's something to look while you're waiting.
8. I can't make up my mind which to go , the red or the blue.
9. She's always the first to turn at this sort of event.
10. I'm not sure who to turn for advice.

Some odds and ends

Exercise 7Choose suitable words from the box to complete the sentences. Some words are used more than once. Type the word into the appropriate space.
about · for · head · in · of · somebody · something · thing
1. That should give him something to think .
2. It's a lot to take at one sitting.
3. The best to do is to wait and see.
4. The score's still 0:0, and there's still everything to play .
5. Have you got to clean this with?
6. Can anybody find me to love? (Queen)
7. There's a lot to be said taking your time.
8. The flat's nothing much to speak , perhaps, but it suits me.
9. She just needs a place to lay her for a few days.
10. What have you got to worry ?
Exercise 8Choose suitable words from the box to complete the sentences. Some words are used more than once. Type the word into the appropriate space.
first · go · hat · home · person · place · season · time · with
1. Have you got a key to open this ?
2. Now that sounds like a to avoid on a dark night.
3. 'Tis the to be jolly. (Dickens - A Christmas Carol)
4. At last we have a place to call .
5. It's to get ready for school, children.
6. Home is more than just somewhere to hang your .
7. I'm the last to criticise him, but really! What's he playing at?
8. Why is she always the to complain about anything, I wonder.
9. Now is not the to cry. Now is the to find out why. (Oasis)
10. So that's two lattes and a cappuccino to , right?

A reminder - nouns often followed by infinitives

Some nouns can be followed by infinitives acting as noun complements.
  • He certainly has the ambition to succeed.
  • Her efforts to gain promotion have so far failed.
  • It's a wonderful opportunity to see the world.
  • His refusal to cooperate is disappointing.
  • I had the sudden urge to hit him.
The infinitives here are giving essential information to 'complete' the noun, answering questions such as - what ambition? what efforts? etc, and cannot easily be made into relative clauses. They are are not, therefore, the same as infinitive relative clauses, but at times the two can look very similar:
  • The proposal to build a new road will be discussed tomorrow.
    (What proposal? - the one to build a new road - noun complement)
  • There are several proposals to be discussed
    (proposals which need to be discussed - infinitival relative clause)
  • I was a fool to believe her.
    (Why was I a fool? - Because I believed her. - noun complement)
  • The only fool to believe her was me
    (the only fool who believed her - infinitival relative clause)


Related posts




  • A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985
    Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum and others
    17.30-17.32 Postmodification by infinitive clauses pp.1265-1269
  • The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002
    Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum and others
    Infinitival relative clauses, pp.1067-1068


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