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In just a couple of years, low-carbohydrate diets have accomplished what the government has failed to do in decades of trying: convince the public that refined grains are bad and whole grains are good.

Why is the imperative word "convince" used instead of the progressive tense word "convincing?"

I ask this because it was an SAT question, and one of its options was to use a progressive tense form of "to convince." Hence, I have no idea why my answer was wrong.

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You may have to change the title. After all, nothing apparently is wrong, except the wording of the question and the fact that it is intended more to test the candidate's confidence level and an ability to provide a convincing proof that it is right. –  Kris Jan 16 '12 at 7:07
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4 Answers

I could be wrong about this, but I think the reason you can't use convincing is that it isn't parallel with do in failed to do. If you rewrote the sentence:

In just a couple of years, low-carbohydrate diets have accomplished what the government has not accomplished in decades of trying: convincing the public that refined grains are bad and whole grains are good.

it would be perfectly fine. But in the original sentence, "convince" has to be able to take the place of "do" in "to do", and "convincing" is the wrong tense for that.

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+1: This. The error (for all you arm-chair editors) is known as faulty parallelism. –  Robusto Jan 15 '12 at 15:47
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In just a couple of years, low-carbohydrate diets have accomplished what the government has failed to do in decades of trying: convince the public that refined grains are bad and whole grains are good.

I don’t know what your ‘progressive tense’ thing is about. Occasionally one hears talk of a ‘present progressive’ in English using an auxiliary (usually to be, never to have, and sometimes a verb of motion) with a present participle, like

  • I am walking.
  • You’re always complaining.
  • She goes sharing her germs with everyone.
  • I was walking down the street when the alarm sounded. (past progressive)
  • Don’t come running to me. (yes, this is in the imperative)
  • I am going to quit. (English’s periphrastic future tense)

That isn’t what we have here. There is no present participle, only a gerund — although those are admittedly identical in form, in that they end in -ing.

The difference is that a present participle “can’t” be the head noun in a noun phrase, whereas a gerund can. Furthermore, English can freely interchange infinitives and gerunds, as both these can be the heads of noun phrases. Consider the equivalence of these two statements, where the first uses gerunds and the second, infinitives:

  • Seeing is believing.
  • To see is to believe.

That’s all that you see happening here; in the quoted sentence, convince is actually an infinitive, even though it isn’t written with the to particle used in citation forms like to convince. Infinitives can still be infinitives in English without it. Plus that way it forms a parallel construct with the immediately-previous to do; one might even claim that the to particle is distributive in this case. One might even argue that this is one of those slightly unusual cases of (non-finite) verbs in apposition.

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You're right, of course. But I'm not surprised to see that this turned up on the SAT, nor that people might have trouble with it. As I've said before, American schools do not teach students anything about the English language. Just a few vague concepts and vague labels to go along with them, and a lot of zombie rules to keep them scared. –  John Lawler Jan 15 '12 at 16:00
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The reasons is that the government has failed to... convince the public. As for your terminology, convince is infinitival, not imparative. Also, if the answer were convincing, it would be a participle, not the progressive aspect. The progressive aspect has two elements: the verb be along with a gerund-participle.

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This is parallel construction. It reads as

... what the government has failed to do in decades of trying
... what the government has failed to convince the public that refined ...

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