The present infinitive is sometimes used as a predicate in a past tense sentence. The use context is similar to praesens historicum. My grammar gives two examples:

  • Nihil Galli respondere, sed in eadem tristitia permanere. (The Gauls did not respond but remained as unhappy as before.)
  • Verres hominem in carcerem conici iubet. Ille clamare se nihil fecisse. (Verres ordered the man to be thrown in jail. He cried that he hadn't done anything.)

On the other hand, some perfect stem forms of the first conjugation can be contracted: amavisti > amasti, amaverim > amarim, amavisset > amasset, amaverunt > amarunt. Such contraction is not possible for all verbs, but at least all regular first conjugation verbs are included.

On the third hand, the third person plural has an alternative ending in perfect active indicative: amaverunt is the same as amavere. This alternative ending can be used with any verb.

Now, if I use the alternative ending and contract, I get amare (contracted from amavere, means the same as amaverunt). This looks exactly like the active present infinitive, including all vowel lengths! The same happens with any regular first conjugation verb. So, if I write Galli aliquid clamare (the Gauls yelled something), the word clamare could be interpreted as a historical infinitive or a contracted form of the active perfect indicative. The two interpretations lead to the same meaning.

Is this similarity coincidental, or is there a connection between contracted perfect and historical infinitive? It would be a somewhat unlikely coincidence since both form and meaning coincide for the two constructions — in some contexts at least. Have ancient or modern writers studied or even commented on the matter?

It seems possible to me that the historical infinitive was born this way. People would have used the contracted version with the shorter ending, and it would be then identified with the infinitive because it looks the same. Then the practice would have been extended by analogy to other verbs and persons. First conjugation verbs in third person plural are common, so it does not sound completely unreasonable that all would have started there. Has this theory been studied? If it has been refuted or accepted, why so?

  • 1
    Interesting theory—I never thought about the idea of contracting alternative endings, but it certainly is a compelling narrative of the rise of the historical infinitive. Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 18:03
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    An interseting idea worth exploring further. However, I would expect to read amavere for the syncopated form of amaverunt. See, e.g., A&G § 181 b.: 'Perfects in -ivi regularly omit v, but rarely contract the vowels except before st and ss, and very rarely in the third person perfect' (italics added). See also the corresponding verb tables in § 184. It is also worth nothing that the historical infinitive 'is often used for the Imperfect Indicative in narration', and is used descriptively rather than to state historical facts (ibid., § 463).
    – jon
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


After talking to another classicist, I can offer some thoughts, though sadly without definitive sources.

It seems unlikely that the two are related, for various reasons:

  • Contracted perfects are extremely rare with the syncopated ending: amārunt and amāvere are both possible for the third person plural perfect, but *amāre generally isn't. Historically, the contracted perfect originated from a sound change ivi > ī, and was extended by analogy to other forms; since -erunt lacks an i to trigger this change, it was never the most popular form to contract (all instances were by analogy).
  • Historical infinitives never seem to alternate with perfect forms: if one phrase uses a historical infinitive, the phrases around it generally will, too, regardless of person and number. You'll (almost?) never see a single historical infinitive on its own within a larger text.
  • Historical infinitives are restricted to certain contexts, and are mainly only used by historians (hence the name), not by other authors. Perfect forms on the other hand appear everywhere.
  • Historical infinitives generally denote repeated, habitual, or ongoing action—in other words, they have imperfect semantics, not perfect.

All in all, it seems to be a coincidence. Perhaps a very unlikely one, but a coincidence nevertheless.

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