German Infinitive Clauses


In German, most verbs have the ending “-en” (lachen, laufen, machen, …). The basic form of a verb is called “infinitive” (“Infinitiv“). In a dictionary, you will always find the verbs in the infinitive form. In some cases, you can also find the infinitive form of a verb in sentences. This often occurs when there are two verbs in the sentence. As a form verb in the sentence, the infinitive can be found with or without “zu“. Infinitive clauses are dependent clauses which are constructed with the infinitive form of a verb and the preposition zu. Infinitive clauses with um zu express the purpose of an action. In German grammar, certain verbs and phrases are followed by an infinitive clause.

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Infinitival clauses, also known as infinitive phrases, are constructions that involve the preposition “zu” plus an infinitive form of a verb, and they typically occur at the ends of sentences.

Ich habe keine Zeit zu schlafen
I have no time to sleep.

In English, whenever there are modifiers or objects associated with the phrases, they usually are found after the infinitive phrase: I have no time to sleep today before work. This same sentence in German would look like this: Ich habe heute vor der Arbeit keine Zeit zu schlafen. As can be seen, the German infinitive phrase occurs after modifiers or objects.

When a separable prefix verb is used with an infinitive phrase, the “zu” is placed between the prefix and the rest of the verb:

Ich habe heute keine Zeit auszuschlafen.
I have no time to sleep in today.

When a modal verb is used in a sentence with an infinitive phrase, the infinitive is placed directly before the “zu,” followed by the modal verb immediately after the “zu.” This is found more often in combination with conjunctions (um, ohne, anstatt, statt).

Ohne die Notwendigkeit schlafen zu müssen, könnte man viel mehr machen.
Without the necessity to have to sleep, one could do much more.

Some infinitive phrases use prepositions to inflect the meanings of sentences. When “um” is added, a purpose or intention is expressed (i.e. “um…zu” = “in order to x”):

Um ein Haus zu kaufen, muss man viel Geld sparen.
In order to buy a house, one has to save a lot of money.

The preposition “ohne” is used to connote doing something without something else:

Ohne zu denken, springt der Mann ins Wasser, um das Baby zu retten.
Without thinking, the man jumps into the water in order to rescue the baby.

The prepositions “statt” and “anstatt,” like “ohne,” are translated using the gerund form in English:

Er spielt Videospiele anstatt zur Arbeit zu gehen.
He plays video games instead of going to work.

Wir gehen heute Abend ins Theater statt in die Oper zu gehen.
We are going this evening to the theater instead of going to the opera.

Notice that in each of the above examples, the verb “to go” is written as the gerund “going” after the prepositions “ohne,” “anstatt,” and “statt.”

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.
Spoken Production:
I can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. I can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe my reactions.
Spoken Interaction:
I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language. I can understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.
I can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. I can understand the main point of many radio or TV programs on current affairs or topics of personal or professional interest when the delivery is relatively slow and clear.