Habemus infinitivum necne

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

No, not showing off, I had to ask a friend to correct my Latin (it's been a long time!) and there's a reason for the Latin phrase being added to the page because it loosely translates as We have an infinitive, or do we?.

First things first

What's an infinitive and would it go with a glass of Château Musar? Probably yes, as to the latter. As to the former, it's actually hard to state exactly what it is because the definition of the infinitive varies slightly depending on which language you're looking at.

Coming at the infinitive from English, it is often described as the dictionary form (also called the citation form), for example, to go or by dropping the to, simply go. It gets more complicated than that but I want to sidestep the precise definition of the infinitive in English because it's a bit of a head-bender (and that's me you're talking to!) and because the English concept is not really a helpful concept for Gaelic, as we'll see.

Anyway, this thing called the infinitive crops up in many European languages. For example, in Spanish, the basic form of verbs (those ending in -ir, -er or -ar) is referred to as the infinitive and these are also the forms you look for in the dictionary, for example, morir "(to) die" or masticar "(to) chew". In German, the equivalent is -en, for example, bedienen "(to) serve" or verniedlichen "(to) make cute". And so on.

What's the attraction?

Well, on the whole, the infinitive is the basis for inflection if the language in question has an inflection system. In English, ignoring irregular verbs, if you know (to) place then you know that by adding -(e)d you get the past, by adding -(e)s you get the he/she/it forms (he/she/it places) and by adding -ing you get the participle (placing).

In some languages, you can also use infinitives to make ungrammatical but somewhat intelligible sentences if you're not fluent. So something like "I place money here yesterday" or "Ich lesen Buch", while not grammatical, can be understood. Infinitives are one of the first verb forms taught to students of English, German, Spanish or French because they allow you to say a lot relatively fast, with relative ease.

What about languages which are not English?

Depends. Some languages outside the Indo-European family entertain the idea of an infinitive. Others go even further and do not inflect at all - such as Cantonese where the verb (sāng "to give birth") does not change at all, and it can also be a noun. As a verb, it takes no endings, no prefixes, no suffixes, no he/she/it -s ... nothing like that. You can add a word like () to indicate that this was in the past but is seen as an independent word, not part of sāng.

And then there are languages which entertain neither concept. Many Native American languages have nothing even approaching an English infinitive. They use a system where there is no such thing as an un-inflected verb. You might ask, what happens in a Lakhóta dictionary? No sweat. Lakhóta considers the most basic form of a verb to be the 3rd person singular. So, while an English dictionary will list (to) sing, Lakhóta will list lowáŋ "he/she/it sings". Because if you look at the whole shebang, you'll see this is the form with the least amount of 'bits' stuck on:

walowáŋ I sing
yalowáŋ you sing
lowáŋ he/she/it sings
lowáŋ we two sing
lowáŋpi we (more than two) sing
yalowáŋpi you (plural) sing
lowáŋpi they sing

Which brings us to Gaelic and the Gaelic dictionary in which the most un-inflected, un-changed and basic form of a verb is considered to be the imperative singular, the form you use to order one person around.

leugh! read!
seinn! sing!
gearr! cut!

Once you know the imperative singular form, you can derive all but one of the required verb forms by applying a set of rules. Again, we're ignoring irregular verbs. So, as an example, using gearr! you get the following:

gearraidh to form the independent future, add -(a)idh to the imperative
ghearras to form the relative future of a word beginning with b/c/d/g/m/p/s/t, lenite the initial letter and add -(e)as at the end
ghearramaid to form the conditional of a word beginning with b/c/d/g/m/p/s/t, lenite the initial letter and add -(e)amaid at the end

And so on. It's a fairly long list but on the whole entirely predictable.

The only form that is not predictable is the verbal noun. So just by looking at gearr, it's hard to guess how to say "cutting". It could be gearradh or gearrachdainn or gearramh or gearrail or gearrachd, and so on. While there are preferred forms common to many areas, in this case gearradh, there is usually a lot of variation between dialects. So, while one area says gearradh, another might prefer gearrachdainn. That isn't as confusing as it may sound because it's almost always clear from the word order that a word is or isn't a verbal noun and many people are fairly used to hearing different endings for verbal nouns.

Get to the darned infinitive already

If you equate the English infinitive with "the basic form of a verb that's listed in a dictionary" then you already know that this does not apply to Gaelic since Gaelic uses the imperative singular for this purpose.

But, there's a bit more to this story, because you're probably thinking of expressions like tha mi a' dol a bhualadh "I am going to hit a dog" or bu toigh leam a dhol a Ghlaschu "I want to go to Glasgow".

I've written before that it's important to distinguish between how something is constructed and how it's translated. On the surface, both those forms looks like infinitives because the English translations have "to go" and the Gaelic has the handy little word a which in the dictionary means "to".

Yes, a means "to", except you probably ignored the bit where it says "prep(osition)", or something like that. So, let's analyse our Gaelic sentence, word for word:

tha mi a' dol a bhualadh
be.PRES.IND I at going to LEN.hitting dog
I am going to hit a dog

Unfortunately, the a in front of bhualadh is not an infinitive particle or anything like that. It's the reduced form of the preposition do "to(wards)", the same do that forms dhomh/dhut/dha/dhi. However, in Modern Gaelic, after a verb of motion, such as dol, you don't use the full form do but rather the reduced form a. So, a clearer translation would be:

tha mi a' dol a bhualadh
be.PRES.IND I at going to(wards) LEN.hitting dog
I am going to(wards) hitting a dog

You're probably already comfortable with that construction, so just swap the bhualadh with a place name or event, for example:

tha mi a' dol a Ghlaschu
be.PRES.IND I at going to(wards) LEN.Glasgow
I am going to(wards) Glasgow
tha mi a' dol a mhòd
be.PRES.IND I at going to(wards) LEN.mod
I am going to(wards) a mòd

...and in doing that you most likely wouldn't bat an eyelid. Well, they're the same a (« do "to(wards)").

Of course, the fact that in translation it looks like an English infinitive does not help. But, if instead of saying "going to hitting a dog" you say "going towards hitting a dog" it might be a bit more apparent.

Miss, miss!

Yes, I was getting to that. And it's "Sir, Sir!" if you please...😉 There is a pattern that grammar books mention in conjunction with "expressions of motion". Consider this:

Thàinig Iseabail a dh'fhaicinn film
came Ishbel to seeing film
Ishbel came to see a film


Dh'fhalbh iad a bhruidhinn ris
PAST.leave they to speaking against.him
They went to speak to him

A novice might be tempted to invoke the dratted infinitive here. But, take a gold star if you already spotted that this is actually the same as the examples further up where a does not mark an infinitive but is just the worn down form of the preposition do. So translating more clearly, the above two are really:

Thàinig Iseabail a dh'fhaicinn film
came Ishbel to(wards) seeing film
Ishbel came to(wards) see a film


Dh'fhalbh iad a bhruidhinn ris
PAST.leave they to(wards) speaking against.him
They went to(wards) speak to him

Yes, I know the last two aren't great English but I'm making a grammatical point about Gaelic.

But what about that other one?

I was getting there. So there are sentences like the following:

bu toigh leam leabhar a leughadh
COND agreeableness with.me book INF reading
I would like to read a book
's urrainn dhomh a bhualadh
COP ability to.me dog INF LEN.hitting
I am able to hit a dog

These are called modal constructions which is not a very intuitive or self-explanatory name. Unfortunately, we're stuck with it. A modal construction contains a modal verb or expresses a modal concept. Don't frown, I'm getting there. Basically, modal concepts are expressions of wanting, being able to or having to do something. In English, they are mostly simple verbs: ought, must, should, could, want, desire, wish, love... In Gaelic, there are some which are just simple verbs, like feum and faod. However, Gaelic mostly uses modal constructions that are roundabout ways of stating things like wanting, necessity, possibility, probability, or ability such as: bu toigh leam, tha agam ri, 's urrainn dhomh etc.

Ok, now this is where you must pay very close attention to the difference between an infinitive and an infinitive(-like) construction.

English has a genuine infinitive, the un-changed and basic form of verbs: (to) sit/eat/drink/run/read/like, and so on. You can use the infinitive in English to derive other verb forms: like » likes; liked; liking; liketh. Or, you can use it to make English sentences with infinitive constructions such as "I like to read".

Still with me? OK, so what we have in those Gaelic sentences are infinitive(-like) constructions. They are called infinitive-like because they get translated into English by using an English infinitive form. But look again at the verbs in the Gaelic sentences. Yes, they're just verbal nouns, reading and going with an a slapped in front of them. Indeed, this a is called an infinitive particle (marked INF above) because of its function, but that's as far as it goes. Unlike in English, it is not followed by a verb in the infinitive form but rather followed by a verbal noun. The infinitive particle a causes lenition and you may want to check out the page on The many functions of ə.

So, the Gaelic resembles an infinitive-like construction, and the English translation uses an infinitive, but neither of these two things mean that Gaelic has a basic, un-changed, un-inflected form of the verb that you can use like (to) sit/eat/drink/run/read/like.

For convenience, here's a full table showing how the infinitive particle a and the preposition a (the reduced form of do) behave regarding lenition and dh':

(infinitive particle)
effect on
verbal noun
example a
(reduced form of
do "towards")
effect on
verbal noun
(or noun)
a a/à » - bu toigh leam amaladh a (do) a » dh'a thig a dh'Alba (do dh'Alba) ; thig a dh'amaladh
a b » bh bu toigh leam a bhualadh a (do) b » bh thig a Bharraigh (do Bharraigh) ; thig a bhualadh
a c » ch bu toigh leam a chàradh a (do) c » ch thig a Chàrlabhagh (do Chàrlabhagh) ; thig a chàradh
a d » dh bu toigh leam a dhùnadh a (do) d » dh thig a Dhiùranais (do Dhiùranais) ; thig a dhùnadh
a e/é/è » - bu toigh leam éisteachd a (do) e/é/è » dh' thig a dh'Éisteal (do dh'Éisteal) ; thig a dh'èisteachd
a f » fh bu toigh leam fhosgladh a (do) f » dh'fh thig a dh'Fhionnsbhagh (do dh'Fhionnsbhagh) ; thig a dh'fhosgladh
a g » gh bu toigh leam a ghlanadh a (do) g » gh thig a Ghiogha (do Ghiogha) ; thig a ghlanadh
a i/ì » - bu toigh leam ìsleachadh a (do) ì » dh' thig a dh'Ìle (do dh'Ìle) ; thig a dh'ìsleachadh
a l » l [Lʲ » l] bu toigh leam a leigeil a (do) l » l [Lʲ » l] thig a Leòdhas (do Leòdhas) ; thig a leigeil
a m » mh bu toigh leam a mharbhadh a (do) m » mh thig a Mhealabost (do Mhealabost) ; thig a mharbhadh
a n » n [N/Nʲ » n] bu toigh leam a neartachadh a (do) n » n [N/Nʲ » n] thig a Nòsdaidh (do Nòsdaidh) ; thig a neartachadh
a o/ó/ò » - bu toigh leam òl a (do) o/ó/ò » dh' thig a dh'Ormasairigh (do dh'Ormasairigh) ; thig a dh'òl
a p » ph bu toigh leam a phasgadh a (do) p » ph thig a Phaibeal (do Phaibeal) ; thig a phasgadh
a r » r [R » r] bu toigh leam a ragachadh a (do) r » r [R » r] thig a Ratharsair (do Ratharsair) ; thig a ragachadh
a s » sh bu toigh leam a shàrachadh a (do) s » sh a Shasainn (do Shasainn) ; thig a shàrachadh
a t » th bu toigh leam a thilgeil a (do) t » th thig a Thiriodh (do Thiriodh) ; thig a thilgeil
a u/ù » - bu toigh leam ùrachadh a (do) u/ù » dh' thig a dh'Uibhist (do Uibhist) ; thig a dh'ùrachadh

So there is a bit of an overlap, on the face of it, but as you can very clearly see, they're not the same.

A word on relatives

No, not the kind that visits and drinks your alc, but relative clauses. Let's take the sentence from above (I would like to read a book) and make it "the book" which will help make the form more transparent:

bu toigh leam an leabhar a leughadh
COND agreeableness with.me the book INF reading
I would like to read the book

When you turn that into a relative clause, the words move around, but the a stays the same:

an leabhar a bu toigh leam a leughadh
the book REL COND agreeableness with.me INF reading
The book I would like to read

So we've picked up a relative particle which does nothing except link the an leabhar bit with the bu toigh leam a leughadh bit, but other than that, no change really. Fortunately the place where "the book" goes in the sentence is the same as in English, so it's not too much of a mind-bender.

What about a dhol and a bhith?

Well, it wouldn't be Gaelic if there wasn't an odd one. Normally, if there is no object you just place the verbal noun after the modal verb or expression, such as:

bu toigh leam seinn
COND agreeableness with.me singing
I would like to sing
faodaidh tu falbh
may you going
You may go
chan urrainn dhomh snàmh
NEG ability to.me swimming
I cannot swim

But if the verbal noun happens to be dol or bith (and in some dialects tighinn), the infinitive particle, a, gets put in front of dol, bith (and tighinn), causing them to lenite:

bu toigh leam a dhol dhan sgoil
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.going to.the school
I would like to go to school
bu toigh leam a thighinn dhachaigh a-rithist
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.coming homewards again
I would like to come home again
an caomh leat a bhith ag éisteachd?
INTERR gentle with.you INF LEN.being PARTICIPLE listening
would you like to be listening?

Just those two, or three, if you include tighinn. Don't ask me why.

Of course, you can combine the uses of do, worn down to a:

bu toigh leam a dhol a Ghlaschu
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.going to(wards) LEN.Glasgow
I would like to go to(wards) Glasgow

and a bhith?

Nice try, but no, a bhith is not an infinitive, just an infinitive-like form. Bith is just a verbal noun, the equivalent of English "being", rather than "to be". It's quite obvious from expressions such as bith-bhuan or a' dol á bith that it's a verbal noun, even though it is not possible to use it with ag. The form *a' bith is not an option.

But, in terms of use, bith behaves like a verbal noun, except that bith has to be followed by ag/a' plus another verbal noun.

bu toigh leam a bhith ag ithe
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.being PARTICIPLE eating
I would like to eat (lit. I would like to be eating)

Since I can't say this often enough, I'll state it again even though this page is not about correct idiomatic usage: don't over-use this, it's not a common construction. As a rule of thumb, if you use a bhith more than once on half an A4 page of written Gaelic, you're probably over-using it.

But I have a book which says there is an infinitive

As the Germans say: Paper is patient. It will hold E=m² just the same as an election leaflet promising a land of milk and honey.

There are two important points to be aware of regarding the particle a. First, there are many different particles in Gaelic which are just written and spoken as a. One has to learn the specific uses of each a and keep their meanings and uses apart. Second, many people writing about grammar have come from a university background where traditionally the description of grammar (of any language) is, or was, heavily influenced by Latin and Greek grammar. Like a pair of shades, the Latin and Greek formulas kind of colour your vision, without your thinking about the coloured tint. I experienced the same issue when I ran into Native American languages for the first time. I discovered there were very few concepts of European grammars that were helpful.

So, one can be prone to see the Latin and Greek categories in languages that don't have those categories. There can be a tendency to try and force-fit these concepts and then explain things that do not fit as "exceptions". For example, in unit 95, from Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks (an excellent book except for this unit), you are told that:

Infinitives are used with the following auxiliary verbs and idioms:
(a) the modal verbs feum and faod
(b) modal idioms expressing obligation
(c) a number of idioms expressing 'wanting, liking, hoping, capability, remembering, obligation, managing'
(d) verbs expressing motion or intent
(e) the verb sguir 'cease'

This list unfortunately conflates at least three different things, which is not helpful. To begin, (a), (b) and (c) are really the same thing. They present a long way of saying "modal verbs and expressions" - which is both shorter and more correct because there are other modal verbs in addition to feum and faod.

The (d) examples kind of refer both to (a)-(c), regarding intent, and the expressions of motion which we have already examined. The (d) examples, in Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, are really instances of "motion", already discussed, which operate using a, the reduced form of do "to(wards)":

chaidh Iain a cheannach
(PAST).go Iain to(wards) LEN.buying
Iain went to buy (« towards)

It is blatantly obvious, in this (d) example, that a is not an infinitive particle but the preposition do/a "towards":

thàinig Anna a dh'fhaicinn
(PAST).come Ann to(wards) dh'.LEN.seeing
Ann came to see (« towards seeing)

The combination of dh' appearing alongside lenition is classic behaviour for do "to(wards)". Compare these sentences, of the type you may be familiar with:

thoir an leabhar do dh'Fhionnlagh
give DEF.ART book to(wards) dh'.LEN.Finlay
give the book to(wards) Finlay
thug e ubhal do dh'Fhearchar
PAST.give he apple to(wards) dh'.LEN.Fergus
he gave an apple to(wards) Fergus

And (e) is again a misreading of the a that appears in sguir constructions. Some verbs simply take certain prepositions, and sguir normally takes de. So the a, in the case of sguir, is just the worn down form of the partitive particle de. So, here's a re-analysis of the example from Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks:

squir iad a chaoineadh
(PAST).stop they PARTITIVE LEN.crying
they stopped crying (lit. they stopped from crying)

The above is the shortened version of:

sguir iad de chaoineadh
(PAST).stop they PARTITIVE LEN.crying
they stopped crying (lit. they stopped from crying)

Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks goes on, in unit 95a, to talk about Indirect objects of infinitives even though there is not a hint of anything infinitive-like in the Gaelic examples. The only reason this unit has been given that heading is because the English translations use infinitives. In Gaelic, it's just the verbal noun being employed:

bu toil leam bruidhinn ri Seumas
COND.copula pleasant with.me speaking against James
I would like to speak to James

Unfortunately, because the translation of this is "I would like to speak to James", this is incorrectly labelled an infinitive.

Isn't the infinitive particle just a possessive pronoun?

Good question. I would say no, simply because if it was a possessive, one would expect a difference between masculine and feminine objects; compare a chù "his dog" vs a cù "her dog". But the infinitive particle, unlike the possessive pronouns, always lenites the verbal noun after it.

Of course, there is the special case of having a pronoun as an object, i.e. something like "I want to hit you", in modal expressions:

bu toil leam do bhualadh
COND.copula pleasant with.me your LEN.hitting
I would like to hit you
bu chòir dhut mo bhualadh
COND.copula right to.you my LEN.hitting
You ought to hit me
bu toil leam am faicinn
COND.copula pleasant with.me their seeing
I would like to see them

Over time, it's conceivable that the pattern of the third person masculine possessive pronoun has resulted in creating some sort of generalized infinitive-like pattern, i.e.:

bu toil leam a phòsadh
COND.copula pleasant with.me his LEN.marrying
I would like to marry him
bu toil leam a pòsadh
COND.copula pleasant with.me her marrying
I would like to marry her

But, overall, it makes no difference because one just has to learn these patterns the way they are today.

In a word

Practically speaking, these are the points to remember:

  1. Don't go hunting for references to the infinitive in Gaelic. You're wasting your time. There is nothing approaching any kind of basic, infinitive verb form in Gaelic. That's just the way it is.
  2. The dictionary form of a Gaelic verb is the singular imperative (order/command form).
  3. After a verb of motion, most commonly a' dol, the a is a reduced form of the preposition do "to(wards)".
  4. In inverted phrases, such as bu toigh leam leabhar a leughadh, the a is the infinitive particle plus a verbal noun. That a is often translated into English using an English infinitive form; however, that does not make Gaelic have an infinitive it can call its own.

So, the whole hunt for a Gaelic infinitive is fuelled mainly

  • by learners hoping for a quick fix,
  • by linguists (in the old days) trying to squeeze all languages into the corset of grammatical terms that work in Latin and Greek,
  • and by various people looking at an English sentence and thinking "English has an infinitive here, so Gaelic must have one too".


Now, what's inversion?

Beagan gràmair
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