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I stumbled upon this quotation from Thomas Huxley:

You have all heard it repeated, I dare say, that men of science work by means of induction and deduction, and that by the help of these operations, they, in a sort of sense, wring from Nature certain other things, which are called natural laws, ... To hear all these large words, you would think that the mind of a man of science must be constituted differently from that of his fellow men; but if you will not be frightened by terms, you will discover that you are quite wrong, and that all these terrible apparatus are being used by yourselves every day and every hour of your lives.

(From On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature, 1863)

Apparently, "to hear these large words" here means roughly the same as "upon hearing these large words". However, my intuitive is that when an infinitive is used adverbially it takes the meaning of either "in order to" or "so as to". In both cases the motion indicated by the infinitive happens after the main clause. However, in this case the relationship seems to be reversed.

I can scarcely recall similar usages of the infinitive elsewhere. I have also noted that this is pretty old text. My questions are:

  • Is there an alternative, more apparent explanation of the usage of infinitive here?
  • Is this usage common in modern English, or out-dated?

I would also love to see other examples of this particular usage of infinitive, from both modern and relatively old sources.

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The structure in question is still used in modern English, although it's somewhat informal. Some simpler-than-Huxley example sentences might help you understand the meaning better:

To hear him talk, you would think he was the world's expert on cheap-ass beer.

You would never think to look at him that he was the Emir of Qatar.

She's not much to look at but she's got it where it counts.

The sense in all of these cases is something along the lines of "based on". You could rephrase the sentences as:

Based on hearing him talk, you would think he was the world's expert on cheap-ass beer.

You would never think, based on a visual inspection of him, that he was the Emir of Qatar.

Her appearance does not indicate that she has a great deal of capability, but she's got it where it counts.

To rephrase it with something close to the same construction, you might use an inverted conditional clause:

If you were to hear him talk, you would think he was the world's expert on cheap-ass beer.

However, "to hear him talk" carries a clear additional implication of "only," as in "only to hear him talk"--so its meaning would be closer to:

If you were to hear him talk, but had no other information, you would think...

So a better translation of Huxley's ideas would be "based solely on hearing these large words, you would think..."

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  • Simpler-than-Huxley example sentences indeed! – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '14 at 16:20

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