Bare Infinitive After Certain Verbs

By Maeve Maddox

An ESL speaker has two questions about the following construction:

…I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains.

Question 1
Can you, please, explain to me why the construction calls for the plural form of the verb “refer” rather than the singular one (refers) when the subject of this verb (a local radio announcer) is singular?

Answer
Refer is not inflected because it is not a main verb in this clause. It’s an infinitive.

The sentence contains one main verb (“was startled”) and four infinitives. Three of the infinitives are easy to spot: to hear, to submit, and to paint. The fourth infinitive—refer— lacks the identifying to because it is a bare infinitive.

A “bare infinitive” is written without the particle to. Bare infinitives are not as common as complete infinitives, but they do follow certain verbs.

The modal auxiliary verbs will, shall, would, could, can, may, might, must, and should are followed by the bare infinitive. For example:

We should go to bed early tonight. (bare infinitive)
Can you help me? (bare infinitive)

When certain verbs, such as hear, see, make, and let, are followed by an object, the object will be followed by a bare infinitive. For example:

I saw him make a face.
The object of saw is him. Make is a bare infinitive.

She heard Charles tell a lie.
The object of heard is Charles. Tell is a bare infinitive.

I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest.
The object of to hear is a local radio announcer. Refer is a bare infinitive.

Question 2
Would I be correct if I use the participle form of the verb; i.e., “I was startled to hear a local radio announcer referring to a contest…”?

Answer
The use of refer rather than referring in this context is a stylistic choice.

The original sentence is made up of two clauses:

Because I am used to thinking of a mural as a painting on a wall, I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains.

The word refer points the reader to the words following it. Changing refer to referring would shift the emphasis from what was said to the announcer saying it. It wouldn’t be “wrong,” but it would weaken the sentence.

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1 Response to “Bare Infinitive After Certain Verbs”

  • Joe

    Not sure you answered the person’s question:

    ” …I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains…
    Can you, please, explain to me why the construction calls for the plural form of the verb “refer” rather than the singular one (refers) when the subject of this verb (a local radio announcer) is singular?”

    I think the real answer is that murals agrees with the number of artists being solicited to paint them. If the contest had called for artists to paint “a” mural, it would have required further clarification: “each paint a mural.” Or the reader would have formed an image of a bunch of artists slopping paint over each others’ creation at one location.

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