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Hellenistic Greek © 2009, 2015
Lesson 14: Infinitives in English and Hellenistic Greek
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The Lesson at a Glance


Hellenistic Greek infinitives are verbs that have no inflection for person or number. In this lesson you will learn the basics about how infinitives work in English and Ancient Greek.

Grammatical Discussion

What is an Infinitive?

Observe the following sentences:

John asked me to return the book.
I want to see your new watch.
To be honest, I don't know what happened.
I was able to walk again after the surgery.
She really knows how to sing.

The verbs preceded by “to” in these sentences are calledinfinitives. Infinitives do not indicate person or number. Hellenistic Greek had a set of verb endings that indicated tense, but not person or number and allowed verbs to function in the same way as those in the English examples above. Look at the following examples:

Ἡρῴδης θέλει σε ἀποκτεῖναι
Herod wants to kill you (Luke 13:31)

Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον
Don't think that I came to destroy the law (Matthew 5:17)

ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ σου δεῖ με μεῖναι
It is necessary for me to stay in your house (Luke 19:5)

οὐχὶ . . . ἔδει παθεῖν τὸν χριστὸν . . .;
Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer. . . ? (Luke 24:26)

Differences between English and Hellenistic Greek Infinitives

While Greek and English infinitives have much in common, as you progress in this course, you will see many differences between the ways they function. For now, though, you only need to focus on two key differences. First, Hellenistic Greek had two different types of infinitives (present and aorist), while English only has one. Second, Hellenistic Greek infinitives were often used with the article (ὁ, ἡ, τό) while the English infinitive is never preceded immediately by "the."

Infinitives and Aspect

Greek infinitives could have either a present or aorist form. The contrast between the two forms had nothing to do with time. It is a difference of aspect.

The Present Infinitive

The present infinitive was used to express progressive or imperfective aspect. It pictures the action expressed by the verb as being in progress. Compare the following examples.

μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν τοῦ διδάσκειν καὶ κηρύσσειν ἐν ταῖς πόλεσιν αύτῶν
He went from there to teach and proclaim in their cities (Matthew 11:1)

The use of τοῦ in Matthew 11:1 is explained below under "Substantival Infinitives."

Here the author uses the present infinitive for the two highlighted verbs to present the teaching and proclaiming as an ongoing ministry rather than an isolated event.

The present infinitive also appears n Mark 8:34. Here again, it suggests progressive or imperfective aspect.

εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἀκολουθεῖν
If anyone wants to follow after me

Jesus is not talking about following him to the store, here. He is talking about taking up a lifestyle of following his teachings and example. The end point of this "following" is not in focus.

The present infinitive is very often used in combination with the aorist indicative of ἄρχω (ἤρξατο = he/she began) to present an action as beginning in the present and extending into the future with no focus on when it will end. Observe the following example from Mark 6:34:

καὶ ἤρχατο διδάσκειν αὐτοὺς πολλά
and he began to teach them many things

Here the focus is on the beginning of the action, but the end is left unspecified.

The Aorist Infinitive

The aorist infinitive does not express progressive aspect. It presents the action expressed by the verb as a completed unit with a beginning and end.

Ἡρῴδης θέλει σε ἀποκτεῖναι
Herod wants to kill you (Luke 13:31)

Here the aorist infinitive is appropriate because the author is not saying Herod wanted to go on an indefinite killing spree, but that he wanted to commit one specific act of killing.

ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ σου δεῖ με μεῖναι
It is necessary for me to stay in your house (Luke 19:5)

In this statement, Jesus is presented as stating his desire to spend the night at Zacchaeus' house, not a request to take up residence there for an indefinite time.

"Substantival" Infinitives

In English, both gerunds (verb+ing forms) and infinitival clauses may function like nouns. They can serve as the subject or object of another verb, for example.

1. Basketball is fun. [NP]

2. Watching basketball is fun for some people. [Gerund]

3. For some people, it's fun to watch basketball. [Infinitival Clause]

4. Playing basketball is even more fun. [Gerund]

5. It's even more fun to play basketball. [Infinitival Clause]

Hellenistic Greek used infinitival clauses both in the way English speakers use gerunds (sentences 2 and 4) and in the way we use infinitival clauses (3 and 5). When Greek infinitives function this way, we call them substantival infinitives.

Articular Infinitives

In Greek, substantival infinitives are often found with the article. This article is not translated, since the article is never used with an infinitive in English. In the examples below, the Greek infinitive and its translation are shown in blue.

περισσόν μοί ἐστιν τὸ γρἀφειν ὑμῖν
Writing to you is superfluous for me
It is superfluous for me to write to you (2 Corinthians 9:1)

The genitive case article is often used with an infinitive to express purpose

μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν τοῦ διδάσκειν καὶ κηρύσσειν
He went on from there to teach and preach (Matthew 11:1)

ἐξῆλθεν ὁ σπείρων τοῦ σπείρειν
The sower went out to sow (Matthew 13:3)

In these examples, the infinitival clause (shown in blue) tells why the action in the main clause was taken. The infinitive states the purpose. When you see a genitive case article with an infinitive, you should expect the infinitival clause to express the purpose of the main clause.

Forms for the Hellenistic Greek Infinitive

Infinitives of Ω Conjugation Verbs

The ending -ειν is used for the present and second aorist infinitive. The two are distinguished by the stems they use.

The first aorist uses the ending -σαι (σ·αι). The sigma (σ) of the first aorist infinitive ending causes the same spelling changes that you learned in the lesson on the first aorist of compound verbs. If you cannot remember those spelling changes, review Spelling Changes Caused by the Aorist Σ in lesson 10.

Lexical Form


First Aorist

Second Aorist













Remember that a few verbs use first aorist endings with a second aorist stem.

Lexical Form


(Second) Aorist




Here is how the aorist infinitive of such irregular verbs is formed:

Lexical Form

Second Aorist Stem

First Aorist Ending

Hybrid Aorist Form







Infinitives of ΜΙ Conjugation Verbs

For most μι conjugation verbs, both the aorist and the present infinitive use the ending -αι. Most use ν to connect this ending to the stem, but a few use σ.

The two tenses are distinguished by their stems. The aorist tense stem is determined by removing the first syllable of the present tense stem. For example, the present active infinitive of δίδωμι (I give) is διδόναι. The aorist infinitive is δοῦναι. Study the following table. Notice that the stem vowel is short in the present infinitive, but often becomes a diphthong in the aorist.

Lexical Form

Present Infinitive

Aorist Infinitive

δίδωμι (I give)



τιθημι (I put, appoint)



ἴστημι (I put, place)


στῆναι or στῆσαι

Exercise 1: Practice Recognizing Infinitives

Take this practice quiz to see how well you can recognize the infinitive forms you have just studied.


Lexical Form

Aorist Form





I lift up, take up, remove




I ask, ask for, demand



up, upon, on, above
While ἀνά appears infrequently on its own, it is a component in several compound verbs that appear much more frequently.




I release; I dismiss, send away




I send, send away
Ἀποστέλλω is a compound verb: ἀπό + στέλλω. Στέλλω = I go, travel; I avoid.




I come, go
Βαίνω is an infrequently occurring verb that does not appear at all in the New Testament. It is worth your time to learn this verb anyway, though, since several other verbs are compounds with it. See ἀναβαίνω, καταβαίνω, and μεταβαίνω later in this list.




I go up, rise up, ascend, advance
Ἀναβαίνω is a compound verb: ἀνά + βαίνω.




I come down




I turn, enter; I leave, depart, move on, go on




It is necessary, It mustLike μέλλω, this verb appears only in the present and imperfect tenses. It is usually followed by an infinitive. Unlike μέλλω, δεῖ appears only in the third person.



ἔστην (ἔστησα)

I place, put, set; I stand, stop
The aorist forms of ἴστημι are inconsistent. Sometimes this verb has first aorist forms (ἔστησα) and sometimes second aorist (ἔστην).



ἀνέστην (ἀνέστησα)

I raise up, set up, arise, resist, restore
Ἀνίστημι is a compound verb: ἀνά + ἴστημι. It' has first aorist forms and sometimes second aorist.




I intend to, I am about to
The imperfect tense of μέλλω is sometimes spelled ἤμελλον in stead of ἔμελλον. This verb appears only in the present and imperfect tenses. It is usually followed by an infinitive.

Reading and Translation

  1. οὐ θέλω ἀπολῦσαι αὐτοὺς

  2. [νήστεις = hungry]

    ἀπολῦσαι αὐτοὺς νήστεις οὐ θέλω

  3. [ἤρξατο = he began]

    Καὶ ἤρξατο διδάσκειν αὐτούς

  4. [σταυρόω = I crucify; σέ = you]

    The little word σέ is enclitic. That is, its accent moves back onto the final syllable of the word before it whenever possible.

    John's Gospel presents Pilate saying to Jesus:

    ἐξουσίαν ἔχω ἀπολῦσαί σε καὶ ἐξουσίαν ἔχω σταυρῶσαί σε

  5. [βρῶσιν = food (βρῶσιν is an accusative singular, 3rd declension noun. You will study third declension nouns later.)]

    ἐγὼ βρῶσιν ἔχω φαγεῖν

    Remember that the aorist of ἐσθίω (I eat) is ἔφαγον (ἔ·φαγ·ον). If you remove the augment and personal ending, you are left with the stem: -φαγ-. Add the second aorist infinitive ending, and you have φαγεῖν.

  6. John's Gospel tells of a man who came to request that Jesus heal his son. To emphasize the urgency of the matter, the story adds the following detail about the son:

    ... ἤμελλεν γὰρ ἀποθνῄσκειν.

  7. ἤμελλον γράφειν

  8. [σὺν αὐτοῖς = with them]

    εἰσῆλθεν τοῦ μεῖναι σὺν αὐτοῖς.

  9. [ἐκεῖθεν = from there]

    μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν

  10. μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν τοῦ διδάσκειν

  11. μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν τοῦ κηρύσσειν

  12. 12. μετέβη ἐκεῖθεν τοῦ διδάσκειν καὶ κηρύσσειν

  13. [δοκιμάζω = I test; ἡ φαντασία = impression, appearance]

    Epictetus once said that the job of the philosopher was
    δοκιμάζειν τὰς φαντασίας

  14. [διακρίνω = I evaluate, judge between (options)]

    δοκιμάζειν τὰς φαντασίας καὶ διακρίνειν

  15. 15. [τί = "What?"; θέλετε = "you want"]

    τί με θέλετε ποιεῖν;

Vocabulary Practice Quiz

Take this short vocabulary quiz to practice the vocabulary for this lesson.

Now practice recognizing the grammatical forms you learned in this lesson.