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Is the sentence "to practice volleyball requires stamina" grammatically correct? As opposed to the sentence "practicing volleyball requires stamina"?

Another example:

  • To ensure safety requires strict observance of rules.
  • Ensuring safety requires strict observance of rules.
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"To err is human." –  Mitch Apr 8 '13 at 12:59
    
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Thanks for the link. The infinitive example given in the link: "To write in English is difficult" sounds complete. "To write English requires practice" is unusual, because "Infinitives are [most] often used when actions are unreal, abstract, or future.". And "Gerunds are often used when actions are real, concrete, or completed.", as in "Writing English requires practice". –  Gravious Apr 8 '13 at 15:46
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3 Answers

It's grammatically correct to use an infinitive as the subject of a sentence, but that example sounds awkward. It's tough to come up with a rule. Parallels between infinitives sound fine ("To understand all is to forgive all"), and there are other cases. If you rephrase your example with an antecedent pronoun ("It requires stamina to practice volleyball"), it sounds more normal.

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Thank you! That's very informative. –  Gravious Apr 8 '13 at 12:09
    
Yes, reversing the order of the sentence may render it more natural-sounding. To ensure safety requires strict observance of rules. [The] strict observance of rules is required to ensure safety. But notice that the to in the second version is not the infinitive marker, but the preposition corresponding to French 'pour' (in order to). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 8 '13 at 13:48
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A Complement clause of any type (infinitive, gerund, tensed that-clause, or embedded question) can be used either as subject or object. But only with certain verbs -- everything about complement clauses is governed by the matrix verb they are the subject or the object of.

The OP question is one variety out of many ways a clause might come to be a subject. It's common to want to use predicates that indicate properties like is fun, takes a lot of time, or requires stamina to talk about athletic activities.

Such activities are mostly verbs, so they need a verb phrase, and every verb phrase determines a clause. This is what infinitives and gerunds are for. But which to use?

As McCawley 1998 puts it (p.126)

Roughly speaking,
that-complements correspond to propositions
for-to complements [infinitives] correspond to situation types
's-ing complements [gerunds] correspond to events

So gerunds are more common than infinitives as subjects denoting events like practicing volleyball, and

  • Practicing volleyball requires stamina.

with a gerund instead of an infinitive subject, is therefore a much more common and totally unexceptional way to say the same thing. In general, gerund subjects are more common than infinitive subjects.

However, that's not to say that infinitive subjects are ungrammatical or incorrect -- they're just shaped wrong. An infinitive subject has to begin with to, because otherwise the listener won't know it's the subject:

  • To have done so much so young is phenomenal.
  • *Have done so much so young is phenomenal.

Anyway, English finds that configuration distasteful. English would much rather have a short subject, thank you very much, and it wants that first verb in the verb chain to be the second constituent, if you please. The place for long complicated clauses is the end of the sentence; English is right-branching.

So there are a whole bunch of syntactic rules that move heavy constituents to the end, often leaving a dummy behind. In the case of the OP question, that rule is Extraposition, which moves an infinitive subject to the end of the sentence, leaving behind a dummy It subject.

  • To practice volleyball requires stamina.
      =(Extraposition)=>
    It requires stamina to practice volleyball.
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In this case, with this predicate, with this construction. Not in general. Extraposition is often an option, frequently required (as with seem), and sometimes not allowed at all with different predicates. General rules about transformations are like general rules about human beings -- i.e, they're not very useful, either as predictors of others' behavior or as guides for one's own behavior. Don't believe them –  John Lawler Apr 8 '13 at 19:57
    
Sorry I had not finished my comment completely which should have been: "It-extraposition is said to be preferable stylistically" when non-extraposed sentences sound awkward. The book A modern course in English syntax also gives an obligatory case: "For example: That it would be better if she went on her own was thought. This must become: It was thought that it would be better if she went on her own." (Wekker, H., and Haegeman, L. A Modern Course in English Syntax. Routledge, 2009.) –  Gravious Apr 8 '13 at 20:20
    
But I understand now that there are no exact rules to follow. Thank you for all the syntactical background and terminology! –  Gravious Apr 8 '13 at 20:21
    
Extraposition is a cyclic rule and therefore can occur more than once in a sentence, provided its conditions are met. –  John Lawler Apr 8 '13 at 20:29
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"To practice volleyball, one requires stamina" is a complete sentence.

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Why do you think it is? –  Kris Apr 8 '13 at 13:38
    
Yes, it is a complete sentence. But it's not the same complete sentence as the complete sentence To practice volleyball requires stamina –  John Lawler Apr 8 '13 at 14:58
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