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Being in a country where Spanish is spoken natively, when folks speak English, I often hear them using phrases of the form "for [infinitive]" (e.g., "for to ask").

It strikes me – somewhat hesitatingly – as ungrammatical and as being rooted in a literal translation of the "para [infinitive]" form in Spanish.

But at the same time, the form has a certain familiarity to it in English. (Perhaps this is simply because I've heard this mistake so often that I'm starting to habituate to it.)

To indicate purpose in this manner, the more common forms in English would be either infinitive ("to ask"), or for + gerund ("for asking"). For those folks who are learning English and are interested in feedback, I would generally guide them away from using "for [infinitive]" and towards these two forms.

And yet I've occasionally seen the "for [infinitive]" form used by folks who seem quite competent in their English (just noticed it here, which prompted me to ask the question).

Thus this question is for to ask: is such usage grammatical or not?

  • There's a similarity to folksy constructions like “You want for me to do it?” and “What can I do you for?” – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 20:34
  • I don't know if it is not grammatical in itself. It just sounds more poetic than plain speaking would require: "For to ask that men should struggle against the briny waves..." – Oldcat Mar 26 '14 at 20:34
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    For to [infinitive] is not used in current, spoken English, but it was once, at least in some dialects. It’s fairly common in Irish folk songs, for example: from Lish Young Buy-a-Broom there’s “But me being unwilling for to cross the raging sea”, etc. Wiktionary has an article on ‘for to’ as a conjunction in itself and compares with Scandinavian cognates (at/å being the Danish/Norwegian infinitive markers). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 26 '14 at 20:35
  • It is very much part of the Geordie accent, of the Newcastle-upon- Tyne, Sunderland area. 'We think he will be fit, f'ter play (for to play) in the match against Arsenal'. (I can hear Alan Shearer or the late Bobby Robson saying it as I write.) 'I'm askin yer f'ter go home an think about it'. – WS2 Mar 26 '14 at 21:43
  • Next try, "I'm going to Louisiana my true love for to see." – Chuckk Hubbard Apr 6 '18 at 5:36
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The for is the first part of the for-to Complementizer that marks infinitive clauses.
For marks the subject of the infinitive clause, while to marks the verb of that clause.

  • For him to make a scene would be unwise. but *Him to make a scene would be unwise.
  • It would be unwise for him to make a scene but *It would be unwise him to make a scene.

It's obligatory in the sentences above, though in other cases it can be optional.

  • I want (for) you to take this to Uncle Joe.

Since the subjects of infinitive clauses are often deleted, either because they're indefinite or because they refer predictably to some other NP in the sentence, the for part of the infinitive complementizer usually gets deleted with them, and other rules like Raising also delete the for marker. Consequently for is far less common than to in infinitive clauses. But it's part of the infinitive clause machinery, just like to.

Sporadic or local retention of the for, while deleting the subject NP, yields for to Vb constructions, which are archaic, but which occur in literature, poetry, songs, and modern dialects.

  • So you would say it is grammatical (or at least has a grammatical basis) but is archaic in terms of use. Is this a fair summary? – badroit Mar 26 '14 at 21:51
  • In English spoken in the United States, yes. – John Lawler Mar 26 '14 at 22:31
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In the British Isles it would be seen as outdated and quaint, though even in the late 20th century it was heard often enough in Ireland. "He went there for to buy a horse". But I haven't heard it for a couple of decades there or anywhere else.

  • Geordies use it all the time! – WS2 Mar 26 '14 at 21:39
  • "Chuaigh sé ansin chun capall a cheannach." Any reference on it being common in Ireland? – badroit Mar 26 '14 at 21:50
  • @badroit, the Irish ‘infinitive’ is still enough of a noun (and it doesn’t have an automatic marker like English ‘to’) that the situation in Irish is not quite comparable. It was/is definitely a feature of Hibernian English, though. (Back in Old Irish, the nominal status of the ‘infinitive’ is even clearer, as in Do-eth ó Ailill ocus ó Meidb do chungid in chon, with the object still a proper appositional genitive.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 26 '14 at 22:00

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