Posted in English

Infinitive Jest

Last week I identified four stubborn problems that – like Scott Pilgrim and the 7 Evil Exes – I had to battle to the death. One of those was to do with fiddly small words in front of infinitives. A lot of this seems to have to do with compound verbs vs ordinary, run-of-the-mill infinitives.

So let’s dive straight into compound verbs…

Compound Verbs

Compound verbs are verbs that are treated as one action but are made up of two verbs glued together. A familiar example is this harmless Pretérito Perfeito Composto

eu tenho chorrado*

You just take part of the verb “ter” and glue it onto your verb and magic happens. We have the same thing in English: “I have overslept”, “I had forgotten to set my alarm clock”. These are pretty easy to use so I’m not going to write any more about them because I don’t fund them confusing at all. In fact, their easier to use than most types of verbs. If you’re not familiar with them, don’t worry, you’ll meet them soon enough and you won’t have any trouble.

Where it gets trickier is when you have verbs made up of some other verb, followed by a short joining word and then an infinitive. There are lots of different ways of classifying them but I’m going to divide them up into groups according that have similar types in, and crucially, each member of the group uses the same joining words. If you don’t like the way I’ve done it, try this page from Ciberdúvidas instead. It has a totally different approach.

[A] Compound verbs showing an action that’s starting or ongoing:

Estar, Andar, Ficar, Começar or Continuar + a + infinitive

  • Estou a escrever este blog
  • Anda a aprender
  • Ela continua a dar aulas
  • Começo a ler a revista
  • Ficar a olhar

I would think of these as “Starting to do…” or “Continuing to do” so the “a” fits nicely because it means “to”

[DE] Compound verbs describing an action that’s abandoned

Deixar, Acabar or Terminar + de + infinitive

  • Deixa de fumar
  • Acabou de ler o livro
  • Terminar de tocar a guitarra

I would think of these as “leaving off of doing something” and “de” means “of” so that makes sense

[DE] Compound verbs describing something you have to do

Ter or Haver + de + Infinitive. In the case of haver it’s a slightly vaguer and more speculative kind of obligation: something you ought to do at some point rather than something you’ve got to get done right now.

  • Hei-de ler “Matadouro Cinco”
  • Tenho de cozinhar esta noite

I would think of these as “I have to do something”. I want to squeeze an “of” in there to make the “de” fit but I can’t, sorry… By the way, is it just me or is Haver the most freakishly unpredictable and incomprehensible verb in the language?

[] Compound Verbs Describing Potential for Action

Ir, Poder or Dever +[No joining word] + Infinitive

  • Vou ganhar o prémio
  • Posso ajudar?
  • Deve estudar

I would think of these as “I’m gonna do something”, “I could do something” and “I should do something” so no joining word needed.

Things That Look Like Compound Verbs But Aren’t.

Some verbs can take an infinitive as their object and so the joining word will depend on the verb in question. So for example

  • Gosto de ler
  • Preciso de ler

both look a bit compound verby but Gostar and Precisar are the main verbs of the sentence and ler is basically being treated as a noun. Both take a de because the verbs are a bit strange. It’s easiest to understand gostar as meaning “to be pleased” so  Gosto de ler means “I am pleased by reading” and Precisar is more like “Have a need” so precisar de ler means “I have a need for reading”

  • Adoro ler

means the same as gosto de ler but it doesn’t need the de because it’s a bit more direct. “Adorar” means “to adore” and you don’t need to adore of something or adore by something, you just need to adore it.

Likewise in the song Deixa-Me Rir, I asked my teacher** why it wasn’t “Deixa-me de rir” like in the example above: “deixe de fumar” but here he’s not talking about letting go of something, he’s talking about being allowed to do it,so Rir is being treated as an object again

Some of the harder-working irregular verbs can be used with prepositions in a way that changes their meaning and in some cases they can be used with infinitives. These buggers are a law unto themselves

  • Dar + para= to be suitable. Essa caneta não dá para escrever uma carta
  • Ficar + por= to fail to do something: Fiquei por escrever o meu livro
  • Passar + a= to change: Depois do desastre, passei a ser outra pessoa

Other Structures Involving Infinitives

In other situations, infinities can be preceded by joining words but it seems even more random.

Quem me dera falar português como a minha esposa

Who will give me speaking portuguese like my wife? (No joining word)

Estou contente por saber que a sua equipa ganhou o tri-campeonato, seja lá o que isso for.

I am content through knowing….


Estou contente em saber que a sua equipa ganhou o tri-campeonato, seja lá o que isso for.

I am content in knowing…

It’s all a bit play-it-by-ear though.

*=Listed at

**=I’m grateful to Ana Cristina Silva for helping me understand this… or at least to be less confused!


I found exercises 48, 49 and 50 of Gramática Activa 1 useful for this – and similar preposition-related confusion.


Just a data nerd

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