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Is there a rule governing when it is acceptable to position two infinitives in a row?

E.g.: The witness plans to refuse to testify.

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Seems like once you got into a third level you couldn't use just infinitives: "The witness refuses to consider to agree to testify" < bad. "The witness refuses to consider agreeing to testify." I don't really know the applicable rules tho so I'll leave it to another to answer! – sequoia mcdowell Oct 3 '11 at 14:24
I wonder if there's really any special restriction on infinitives? As with, say, nested genitives ("the girl next door's uncle's godfather's mother-in-law"), provided that the sentence is actually grammatical, then it's more a question of when you reach practical limits of how many 'nested items/ideas' can be processed in a given context. But it's not clear to me that infinitives constitute a special case as such. – Neil Coffey Oct 3 '11 at 15:00
@sequoiamcdowell, The problem with that sentence is that consider to agree is ungrammatical all by itself—*consider* doesn’t take an infinitive. So it really doesn’t have anything to do with chains of infinitives. – Jason Orendorff Oct 3 '11 at 22:20
Incidentally—I think I remember reading that there is no easy rule that tells which verbs take an infinitive (plan to clean up), which ones take a present participle (consider cleaning up), which ones take the plain verb (help clean up), and which don’t take a second verb at all (* scheme to clean up). That means that if you’re a native speaker, you’ve just memorized them. – Jason Orendorff Oct 3 '11 at 22:32
up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is no grammatical limit. The sentence could continue The witness refuses to consider to agree to testify to help to free . . . However, anyone writing like that would quickly try the patience of the reader.

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+1 for trying patience. For informal (non-legal) writing I might set an -- arbitrary -- limit around five or six consecutive infinitive clauses, if only for readability's sake. Just keep in mind you're pushing it if you're using more than three for most situations. – Joseph Weissman Oct 3 '11 at 17:56
Barrie, your example sounds off to me, because of consider. I don’t think consider can take an infinitive complement (except in the idiom consider X to be Y, but of course that’s another story). – Jason Orendorff Oct 3 '11 at 22:23
But will he be likely to continue to refuse to try to consider to begin to negotiate to testify to start to help to arrange to free the accused? – David Schwartz Oct 4 '11 at 1:49
You're right, Jason, it was a poor example. The point remains, however, that there is not a grammatical limit, even if there is a lexical one. – Barrie England Oct 4 '11 at 7:41
@BarrieEngland Perhaps change the answer to make it more correct? – sequoia mcdowell Oct 5 '11 at 18:28

No. This is a style choice. Once you get past two infinitives, however, you might start considering revisions, simply for the sake of flow and ease of reading.

E.g.: 3 infinitives: The witness refuses to consider to agree to testify. 2: The witness refuses to consider agreeing to testify. 1: The witness won't consider agreeing to testify.

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