The Various Uses of the Infinitive in Ancient Greek

Mastering the various nuances of the infinitive is one of the key elements in translating Patristic Greek.

The infinitive in Ecclesiastical Greek can be easy to translate when used normally, but tough when it comes to advanced forms.

It is easy to spot an infinitive because its ending usually takes on the -ειν as the ending such as:

  • ἄρχειν — οἱ δοκοῦντες ἄρχειν τῶν ἐθνῶν, “they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles,” (KJV; Mark 10:42)

  • φεύγειν — τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς; “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (NIV; Matthew 3:7)

  • λαμβένειν — εἶπεν Μακάριόν ἐστιν διδόναι μᾶλλον ἢ λαμβάνειν “He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (NKJV; Acts 20:35)

So far it is pretty simple. Identify a infinitive and translate into English as to rule, to flee, or to receive. This is basic. The infinitive in ancient Greek goes beyond this.

The infinitive takes on a different use if an article is found in front of it.

This happens quite often in Patristic writings and it is good to keep this quote handy from Donald J. Mastronarde’s book, Introduction to Attic Greek.:

  • nom. τὸ ἄρχειν πόνον φέρει. To rule brings toil

  • gen. ἐκ τοῦ φεύγειν as a result of fleeing

  • dat. πρὸς τῷ δῶρα λαμβένειν in addition to taking bribes

  • acc. πρὸς τὸ ἐλαύνειν τὰς ἵππους with regard to driving the mares1

One will find in many grammars an oversimplification of the infinitive and doesn’t explain succinctly as Mastronarde does in the above.

However, one has to be very careful with the genitive articular infinitive. Τοῦ may indicate a comparative rather than a result clause. Cyril of Alexandria’s catena on I Corinthians is a good example:

προαποδείκνυσι καὶ ἑτέρως ἀσυγκρίτως ὅν ἐν ἀμείνοσι τοῦ γλώσσῃ λαλεῖν τὸ διερμηνεύειν τὰ προφητῶν

“He also elsewhere shows beyond comparison that the activity of interpreting the prophets is in superiority than speaking in a language.”

There are other techniques used here that have not been explained yet. The infinitive can be used as a gerundive, or a gerund which both happen to occur in the above passage.

First the gerund. The English language uses the gerund quite extensively; ruling, fleeing, and taking are some examples of the gerund construct. But how does that work translating a Patristic writer? The same quote by Cyril of Alexandria has, γλώσσῃ λαλεῖν which is literally, “to speak in a language,” but in this context, it simply does not make good English. Putting it into a gerund makes better sense, “speaking in a language.” When identifying an infinitive, one must always think of the gerund construct as a possible translation.

The Greek writer may have purposely written an infinitive to have a gerundive sense. There is no gerundive construct in English, but there are effective workarounds. The gerundive is especially typical in Latin, and on many occasions the Latin translator likes to translate the Greek articular infinitive as a gerundive, and makes good sense to do so. The articular infinitive does follow the gerundive pattern. A gerundive is a verbal adjective. It has many possible translations based on context. For example in the Cyril text above it has:

τὸ διερμηνεύειν τὰ προφητῶν. It can be translated as:

  • 1. one is about to interpret the things of the prophets
  • 2. one ought to interpret the things of the prophets
  • 3. one is in the act of interpreting the things of the prophets
  • 4. one is bound to interpret the things of the prophets
  • 5. one must interpret the things of the prophets

In this case, the third approach was chosen with some modifications

However, according to a Wikipedia article on Ancient Greek Grammar by an author named Cesarion, the gerundive does exist in a natural Greek state. It doesn’t have to be an articular infinitive:

The gerundive is a passive verbal adjective which indicates the necessity for the action of the verb to be performed. It takes the nominative endings -τέος, -τέᾰ, -τέον, declining like a normal first/second declension adjective. Its stem is normally of the same form as the aorist passive, but with φ changed to π and χ to κ. e.g.

παύωπαυστέος (to be stopped)
λαμβάνωληπτέος (to be taken)

Gerundives may be used as straightforward adjectives, with the agent, if any, in the dative:
βοῦς θυστέος ἐστίν
An ox must be sacrificed

They may also be used to express impersonal necessity
ποιητέον (ἐστί)
It is necessary to do…

However, I have very rarely come across these types of Greek constructs. Perhaps they do frequently exist and they have been overlooked.

The infinitive can be used for declaring a dependent clause:

λέγουσιν τὸν Σωκράτη σοφὸν εἶναι. They say that Socrates is wise.2

One other way the infinitive that cannot be overlooked is that it can be used in a subjunctive sense. Earlier Greek Patristic writers such as Cyril of Alexandria did not utilize the subjunctive mood, ἵνα + subjunctive. Instead the articular infinitive could be written for this purpose. The articular infinitive can indicate cause, purpose, or motive, which falls into the realm of the subjunctive. However, I do not yet have a good example of this to demonstrate, though it does occur frequently and the translator must always be mindful of this.

The Lectionary Studies website has an expanded usage of the infinitive in the Greek New Testament. It also describes how to use the infinitive with various prepositions in front of it. There are some applications from this website that can be applied to ecclesiastical Greek.

As one sees from all this, the infinitive plays an important role in ancient Greek, and the translator should keep in mind these variables.

  1. Introduction to Attic Greek By Donald J. Mastronarde. Page 65.
  2. taken directly from Wikipedia,

6 thoughts on “The Various Uses of the Infinitive in Ancient Greek”

  1. Dear Charles A Sullivan,
    I would be most grateful if you could confirm whether or not the two articular verbal compound nouns (τὸ παρεῖναι, τὸ απείναι) are correct so far as their Greek accents is concerned. I want to be sure that when I put the neuter singular definite article τό in front of the two infinitives (παρεῖναι, απείναι) there is no alteration of their accentuation. Or is there?!
    εἰμί, εἶναι, τὸ εἶναι
    πάρειμι, παρεῖναι, τὸ παρεῖναι
    ἄπειμι, απείναι, τὸ απείναι
    Thank You,

      • George V. at the Greek literature based website,, has the answer. I asked on your behalf and this is their reply: “Are you working on Heidegger perhaps? Anyway, you are almost correct
        τὸ παρεῖναι, τὸ ἀπεῖναι, εἰμί, εἶναι, τὸ εἶναι, πάρειμι, παρεῖναι, τὸ παρεῖναι, ἄπειμι, ἀπεῖναι, τὸ ἀπεῖναι.”
        For anyone wanting answers to anything related to the Greek language, from ancient to modern, written and spoken, their forum is a helpful resource. Here is the weblink. You will find the answer to the above question there too.

  2. For any reader, including the article author, who might bump into this page while surfing the web for Greek stuff:
    “However, I have very rarely come across these types of Greek constructs. Perhaps they do frequently exist and they have been overlooked.”
    First stop, searching Perseus for Greek gerundives (-teos,…):
    Καταστρεπτέα ἡ Καρχηδών, Ἕλληνες φησίν, ἀντὶ Carthago delenda est.


Leave a Comment