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I look up a dictionary for allow and I get

  • To permit
  • To assign
  • To grant or give, esp periodically
  • To concede or acknowledge

Similarly for flow, I see

  • to run
  • to move or change form like a fluid
  • to rise or come in

Why is a 'to' prefixed to all meanings? The meanings work well without that too.

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Maybe it's a style choice by the dictionary. – Mitch Mar 30 '13 at 13:33
You may wish to check out the new site English Language Learners. This would be a great question there -- to help posterity. ;-) – BobStein-VisiBone Mar 30 '13 at 13:48

The to employed here is not a preposition but the infinitive marker, which designates what follows as the infinitive form of a verb.

Because so many English forms act as multiple parts-of-speech, it's useful, or at least a courtesy to the reader, to mark a form specifically as a verb. Note that in your first example the first three definitions, permit, assign, grant all have nominal senses.

Similarly, some dictionaries mark nouns with an indefinite article: a permit, an assign, a grant or gift.

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This is a very good reason to use the infinitive. But another possible explanation is that Latin dictionaries used the infinitive in their definitions, and Renaissance dictionary writers may have modeled their English dictionaries on Latin dictionaries. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '13 at 14:52
The first English dictionary, Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not use "to" for verbs in its definitions. Most of the subsequent dictionaries seem to. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '13 at 15:00
@PeterShor Yes, but it's still an infinitive without the to, as Ben Jonson's The English Grammar defines it. (Oddly, Jonson derives the verb infinite from the future, by which he appears to mean the imperative.) – StoneyB Mar 30 '13 at 15:03
Then Ben Jonson, however great his talents, is perhaps not the ideal source for grammatical analysis in modern English. – John Lawler Mar 30 '13 at 15:36
@JohnLawler Quite so; I cite him only as an example of Renaissance use. It is by the way enormous fun seeing Jonson (whose grammar was I think only the second in English) struggling to bring Latin grammar to bear without violating his own masterful sense of how English actually works. – StoneyB Mar 30 '13 at 16:01

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