In my grammar book I've got a sentence

The woman to talk to is over there.

and this is the only example of that type. That makes me believe I can say things like:

  • The packages to deal with will arrive tomorrow
  • The foreign student to help to practice his Norwegian isn't here anymore
  • Sorry! The guy to fix such things doesn't work today
  • My time to talk has come
  • The wish to call her waned after some time

Am I getting the hang of it or am I really off?

  • The first and last two are fine. The second and third sound strange. Why? Because when you use "to fix such things", the phrase can't modify the person who is doing the fixing. For example, "the tools to fix the plumbing are in the basement" is fine, but *"the guy to fix the plumbing is at the door" is not. Hopefully, somebody will give a better explanation in an answer—my comment's reasoning sounds pretty ad hoc but I know there's a more coherent grammatical reason. – Peter Shor Aug 3 '13 at 12:29
  • @Peter: I would say that the pivotal noun cannot act as the subject of the infinitive. "The guy to help" -> object ('help him'); "the woman to talk to" -> object of preposition ('talk to her'); "the guy to fix the plumbing" -> *subject. Dunno, your second example has a 'to' too many: "The foreign student to help practice his Norwegian". – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '13 at 15:26
  • Although... Maybe I'm just talking rubbish here—there is nothing wrong, after all, with "He's not the right person to help you". – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '13 at 15:28
  • I suggest asking this question at English Language Learners. – MetaEd Aug 25 '13 at 21:22

Yes, basically that's how the structure that you initially mention works. An important point which you haven't mentioned is that in this construction, the infinitive phrase doesn't generally introduce 'new' information.

So, in other words, if I say "The packages to deal with will arrive tomorrow", this implies that we already know that some packages need to be dealt with and the sentence is preceded by some kind of question or discussion about "which precise packages". The sentence as you have it cannot generally introduce as 'new information' the idea that "packages need to be dealt with" but can only be used to specify which ones. This differs for example from the sentence "The packages, which need to be dealt with, will arrive tomorrow".

Note that not all of your sentences are necessarily examples of the same structure. For example, in "The wish to call her", an alternative (and possibly more explanatory) analysis is that the infinitive is 'selected' by the noun "wish" and not an example of the same general structure of your first sentence.

  • +1 for the overall answer, but I am not sure that the last example is really different. "The wish waned after some time. Which wish? The wish to call her." And I would not use that sentence unless I had previously mentioned that wish. – bib Aug 3 '13 at 15:22
  • I was trying not to go too much into the analysis for the sake of keeping things simple for the OP. But John Lawler has in his answer and he starts to explain the reason why at least the last example is different. In this case, the infinitive phrase isn't really standing as a relative clause, but rather it is a complement of the noun 'wish'. Superficially they look similar, but they have different properties which come to light when e.g. you're trying to predict when the infinitive phrase can be used. – Neil Coffey Aug 4 '13 at 8:19
  • @NeilCoffey you're saying I can't say the packages or packages ? This sentence needs the? – Dunno Aug 21 '13 at 10:51

There are several different kinds of structure in your sentences, and some of them don't work the way you have them. So you're getting some hang of it.

The most common type of NP + infinitive structure is the Relative Infinitive. This is basically an untensed relative clause, with no relative pronouns except after pied-piped constituents.

Relative infinitives have the syntactic, pragmatic, and functional characteristics of restrictive relative clauses. I.e,

  • they contain a Zero referent of the NP they modify,
  • the information they contain is presupposed to be true
    -- as Neil put it, they don't introduce 'new' information -- and
  • they're intended to identify the particular NP they follow and modify by providing this information.

In addition to these shared properties, however, relative infinitives almost always are interpreted as if they contained a modal of some sort, like should or can. This usually comes out in paraphrases using tensed relative clauses:

  • the man to talk to = the man that one should talk to [NB: man is Object of talk to]
  • the man to do the job = the man that can do the job [NB: man is Subject of do the job]

And, unlike tensed relative clauses, relative pronouns may not appear, except with pied-piped material (and then it must be a Wh-pronoun, since that does not allow pied-piping):

  • the song to listen for ~ *the song which to listen for ~ *the song that to listen for
  • the song for which to listen ~ *the song for that to listen

Relative infinitives are very common, especially in idioms and slogans; they're short, punchy, and generic, and the hidden modal makes them ideal for manipulative purposes. Plus, all the deleted material makes them delightfully vague.

Another type of NP + infinitive clause is the NP Complement clause. Any picture noun can take a complement, though not always an infinitive; most NP complement clauses are tensed. Infinitive complements often occur when a noun is formed from a predicate that takes a complement, like wish in

  • I wished to call her.

Generally such nouns inherit the complement preferences of the verbs they're formed from. In this case, wish takes an infinitive complement whether it's a noun or a verb.

You can tell it's not a relative infinitive because there's no way to turn it into a relative clause; the complement clause contains no NP coreferential with wish.

  • *the wish which I should call her

There are other types, but that's enough.

  • As always a most erudite answer. But what of the fact that while "He is the man to do the job" works fine, while "The man to do the job is not here" lies somewhere between awkward and impossible? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '13 at 16:47
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet: Relative infinitives are used in very specific circumstances -- they're usually generic and always contain some modal like can or should -- and a sentence with an specific deictic predicate like is not here can't take a generic NP as subject, without serious metaphoric infrastructure. – John Lawler Aug 9 '13 at 15:29
  • You've discussed relative infinitives in examples 1,2,3 and complement infinitives in 5. But what about 4: My time to talk has come? – Richard Z Dec 13 '18 at 21:38
  • That's a relative infinitive, too, with when, which has restrictions, since it's adverbial and therefore can't be subject or object of a clause. When, of course, is deleted as usual, but it can be converted into a relative clause: The time when I (am to) talk. – John Lawler Dec 14 '18 at 2:35

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