Infinitives in lists

The purpose of this post is to:

  • discuss two ways of presenting infinitives in lists;
  • explore the nature of infinitives preceded by to; and
  • conclude on how to present infinitives preceded by to.

Infinitives in lists

My ex-colleague Michael Butcher, who was Editorial Director of the IFRS Foundation from around 2001 to around 2011, would have viewed the above list as ungrammatical and he would have corrected it. He viewed the phrases to discuss, to explore and to conclude as each being a single constituent that can’t be sub-divided. So his style guide prescribed that in such a list to discuss, to explore and to conclude should be written out in full, as follows:


The purpose of this post is:

  • to discuss two ways of presenting infinitives in lists;
  • to explore the nature of infinitives preceded by to; and
  • to conclude on how to present infinitives preceded by to.

I found Michael’s approach on this issue awkward when he first mentioned it to me. I did become conditioned to it, though, and have for many years adopted his approach in my own writing and have routinely made this edit when reviewing other people’s work.

In doing so, I have found that Michael’s approach doesn’t come naturally to most people, and maybe not to anyone else at all. Perhaps we are in a minority of two in the whole world.

Infinitives preceded by to

The English form to discuss or to explore is traditionally called the infinitive, and this perhaps lies behind Michael Butcher’s approach to these items. However, in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Rodney Huddlestone and Geoffrey Pullum use the term to-infinitival instead. They analyse to discuss as made up of:

  • what they call a subordinator (to, derived historically from the preposition to); followed by
  • what they call the plain form of the verb (discuss).

Presenting these infinitives

Most editors I have worked with since Michael Butcher’s retirement would prefer the first approach (with to) in the lead in sentence, rather than placed separately at the start of each bullet. One advantage of this approach is that it is more concise.

I find Huddlestone and Pullum’s analysis quite appealing, and it probably removes the main argument for Michael’s approach.

Nevertheless, in some cases, Michael’s approach, though unfamiliar to most people, makes the text clearer. I don’t have an good example in mind, but perhaps this tends to be where there are many bullets or where the bullets are quite long. In those cases, using the whole phrase (for example, to discuss or to explore) at the start of the bullet makes it easier for the reader to orient herself. Moreover, the gain in conciseness from adopting the first approach is negligible.

So on balance, I still favour Michael’s approach, especially when there is any chance that it can make it easier for readers to see the meaning directly, without having to stop to unpick it.

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