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How to use “to + V-ing”?
“To hear” or “to hearing”?

Samson had been a strong man prior to having his hair cut.

From a grammatical point of view, when to appears before a verb, it indicates that the infinitive (simple) form of the verb is to be used. But I have seen to used with conjugated forms of verb as well. What is the explanation for such uses?

For instance, why is this not correct?

Samson had been a strong man prior to his hair are being cut?

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, RegDwigнt Feb 6 '12 at 20:32

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imho this is basic grammar "General Reference". The first example is perfectly standard English. –  FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 18:50
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I think this is a good question as it illustrates the many different tenses in use in the English language. In this case, "before he had his hair cut", "prior to cutting his hair", "before his hair was cut", and "prior to his hair being cut", and "prior to his having his hair cut" are all correct, but each way of stating this has slightly different implications. –  Jay Elston Feb 6 '12 at 19:08
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True. But I think the confusion came from confusing a string with a constituent. It would be clear in speech, but writing omits the intonation and rhythm bands that carry this information. –  John Lawler Feb 6 '12 at 19:13

1 Answer 1

The to in this sentence is not the Infinitive Complementizer to. It's the Preposition to, part of the complex preposition prior to, which means the same as before:

  • Samson had been a strong man prior to having his hair cut.
  • Samson had been a strong man before having his hair cut.

So the gerund clause having his hair cut is the object of the preposition prior to.

In other words, to having is not a Constituent of this sentence; to is part of the constituent prior to, and having is part of the constituent having his hair cut. They just happen to be next to each other here.

Not every infinitive is marked with to; not every to marks an infinitive. Constituents, not strings.


Addendum. The reason why

  • *Samson had been a strong man prior to his hair are being cut.

is because the gerund phrase requires a gerund, and are is not a gerund.

Apparently there is some confusion here between the Progressive construction, which uses a tensed form of be plus the -ing form; and the Gerund construction, which is untensed and requires no auxiliary verb, just the -ing form. These are two uses of the -ing form of the verb.

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I'm going to add an addendum to this because I realize I didn't specifically address why *Samson had been a strong man prior to his hair are being cut is ungrammatical. –  John Lawler Feb 6 '12 at 19:34

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