Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was writing something down that came to me in a passing while I was watching TV, and I found myself discombobulated with the way one should phrase the notion of letting someone do something in the manner illustrated by the example in the question I posed. I know of a book with the title 'too dangerous to let live', but the sentence I was writing down feel so much intuitive with the second form, that is, having 'be' before the phrase 'let + verb'.

The sentence is,

'Besmirching what I thought to be too pure to be let exist, deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to be let waste'.

Is this sentence grammatically right? Or is this one a better alternative?

'Besmirching what I thought to be too pure to be let to exist, deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to be let to waste'.

The problem here is, I was reminded by that book I mentioned with the title 'Too Dangerous To Let Live' which would then suggest that my sentence is better if phrased this way,

'Besmirching what I thought to be too pure to let exist, deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to let waste'

I also have thought of another alternative which further baffles me,

'Besmirching what I thought to be too pure to be let existed, deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to be let wasted'

So do you have any ideas or insights on which one should be correct? Any answer is very much appreciated!

share|improve this question
You can say something is "too poisonous to use", but you could also say it's "too poisonous to be used" (and Google Ngrams shows both of them exist), so by analogy I think "to be let waste" and "to let waste" are fine. I don't like "let to waste", though. – Peter Shor Jun 13 '13 at 11:03
I think I understand it more clearly now Peter. I guess the thing that actually side-tracked me is the unchanged form for past tense and infinitive 'let'. Your examples illustrated that to me. Thanks man. – Suffian Azizan Jun 13 '13 at 11:48
This may be a parochial (U.S.) response, but I think that most U.S. English speakers would telescope your original sentence to something like "Besmirching what I thought too pure to exist, deflowering what I reckoned too beautiful to waste." The shortened form undoubtedly alters the underlying meaning if taken literally, but I think most U.S. hearers would understand it as you intend—as describing states of being, four times over. – Sven Yargs Mar 5 '14 at 1:29

3 Answers 3

It's archaic, but the construction to be let exist does have a more modern equivalent.

Take the sentence "I let him exist": this can be re-ordered as "Him, I let exist", with the same meaning of "Him, I allowed to exist". Note that using let means that to does not appear, as it must when using allow.

Thus to be let exist means to be allowed to exist. The verb exist is infinitive, and let does not permit to.

To be let existed is ungrammatical: exist must be infinitive.

To let exist is the more modern equivalent, to allow to exist.

Besmirching what I thought to be too pure to be allowed to exist...

More interesting is to be let waste. Waste here is again an infinitive verb, with a variety of possible meanings (per OED)

9. In unfavourable sense: To spend, consume, employ uselessly or without adequate result.
†13. To lose quality, deteriorate, spoil.

So the second half can be modernised as

...deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to be allowed to go to waste.
...deflowering what I reckoned to be too beautiful to be allowed to deterioriate.

share|improve this answer
I agree with everything you say, but I would like some clarification concerning the first sentence of your answer. Have you seen instances of to be let exist in use? – Irene Jun 13 '13 at 9:21
@Irene No, but then I don't tend to read the sort of historical novels where it might appear. – Andrew Leach Jun 13 '13 at 9:29
I find your explanation enlightening. Thank you there Andrew! – Suffian Azizan Jun 13 '13 at 11:41
I don't think that "to be let" can be used. Or at least, I've never heard it used, and it sounds very strange to me. "to let exist" makes sense, but when I see "to be let exist" I have no idea what it means. – Benubird Feb 11 at 10:26
@Irene, Try Charles Dickens Great Expectations. "Now lookee here," he said, " the question being whether you're to be let to live".… – chasly from UK Oct 23 at 1:47

The only form of catenation that let regularly licenses is complex catenation with base forms of verbs:

simple catenation with base form // to-infinitive // ing-form: *He should let think / die / come // to think // thinking. (He should let go is idiomatic, a multi-word verb. And Live and let live is another set expression.)

complex catenation with to-infinitive: *He should let them to think / to come / to sleep.

complex catenation with bare infinitive: He should let them think... / come / sleep.

Even this latter construction (let + DO + base-form) doesn't passivise in general:

*?They should be let think / come / sleep.

More acceptable is the passivisation of the synonymous 'allow + to-infinitive':

They should be allowed to think(...) / come / sleep.

(Ngrams for the alternatives using come, sleep, live, have, marry, die... all show either no results for the let version or a huge preference for the allow to {ie be allowed to} version).

share|improve this answer
I am aware of the two forms of complex catenation that you stated above but the simple catenation is actually pretty new to me. I appreciate your answers. – Suffian Azizan Jun 13 '13 at 11:44
@Suffian Azizan Complex catenation with ing-forms is also possible with some verbs; the Cobuild treatment of 'verb + ing-forms' gives a more thorough analysis of three different isomorphic structures. See at… . The authors of CGEL, in their classification of catenative verbs, list Class 2: "Catenative verbs [which appear] in both simple and complex construction". A good article on simple catenatives may be found at . – Edwin Ashworth Jun 14 '13 at 8:39

'too dangerous to let live'


'too dangerous to be let live'?

'too dangerous to let live' [correct]

'too dangerous to be let live' [incorrect]

'too dangerous to be let to live' [correct but archaic]


"Now lookee here," he said, " the question being whether you're to be let to live". Charles Dickens Great Expectations.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.