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One of my English friends has written to me:

A teacher can receive no greater gift than to know he has had a positive influence on his students.

Here is my question: Why has he written to know with a to in front of know there? I myself think the sentence should instead be like this, without the to part:

A teacher can receive no greater gift than know he has had a positive influence on his students."

I think the use of to know there is wrong. Is it?

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I can't give you the nuts-and-bolts reason but I can assure you that "to know" is correct. You can also replace "to know" with "knowing". "A teacher can receive no greater gift than knowing he has had a positive influence on his students." –  Kristina Lopez Apr 5 '13 at 17:37
    
You are wrong. May you should tell us why you think so? –  Noah Apr 6 '13 at 6:38

1 Answer 1

A bare infinitive cannot serve as a noun phrase the way a to-infinitive or an -ing form acting as a gerund can:

  • His best idea was going home early.
  • His best idea was to go home early.
  • His best idea was *go home early.

Just like:

  • Going home early was his best idea.
  • To go home early was his best idea.
  • *Go home early was his best idea.

The starred ones are ungrammatical, as is your revision of your correspondent’s sentence, and for the same reason.

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Which is to say the second option should read "A teacher can receive no greater gift than knowing he has had a positive influence on his students. –  Shmuel Apr 5 '13 at 16:42
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It's not as clear-cut as this. There are plenty of Google hits for {"best thing you can do is" + bare infinitive}. This is probably an ellipted form of {"best thing you can do is" + to-infinitive}, which I think is always available, but I think it's the inclusion of do that licenses the ellipsis. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 '13 at 16:48
    
@EdwinAshworth I thought of that, and since it can only work with can or other modals, I’m convinced that it the modal applies there to the second verb as well. –  tchrist Apr 5 '13 at 16:51
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To is deleted from many infinitives when governed by what are called "small verbs" by some. These are verbs like let, make, have that occur in constructions as auxiliaries and have had most of their lexical meaning bleached out of them. The construction Edwin mentions is a repetition of the unmarked do following the modal. And, yes, it's the use of the proverb do that licenses the following verb; it works without modals, as in The last thing I did was (to) sell the car, with optional to. –  John Lawler Apr 5 '13 at 17:17
    
@JohnLawler The sensory verbs also suppress the to particle, but I don’t know why. –  tchrist Apr 5 '13 at 17:48

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