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New York is a great place to live.

New York is a great place to live in.

I've seen the former usage a lot and I've started wondering what the grammar aspects of it are.

The main question I'm asking involves the grammar when the preposition in the end of the sentence is deleted. Is it equally formal or correct to omit it? What are the grammar properties of this?

Some more examples of similar usage:

This organisation is a great place to work.

This is a great place to stay/sit/study/travel/go.

Just to show that 'live' isn't special in this case.

Note: I'd posted the same question on ELL before, but the answers were not satisfying enough (the answers there did not seem to provide the precise grammar aspects of this, those that could be in a serious grammar book), so I'm posting this here to get some more views on the question. I hope it is acceptable.

  • You might want to search for duplicates on this. Tell us what they're not able to provide for you an answer. – SrJoven Aug 25 '14 at 14:33
  • Not sure about "This is a great place to go," unless of course you're talking about excreting urine, and "to go" is as good a euphemism as any, I guess! Despite its ending in a preposition, perhaps "This is a great place to go to" would be better. Or perhaps, "This is a great destination." Just some random thoughts. Don – rhetorician Aug 25 '14 at 14:38
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    @rhetorician: "This is a great place to go" sounds OK to me. "This organisation is a great place to work", however, irks me somehow. – Cerberus Aug 25 '14 at 14:43
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    @Edwin I don't think there is any preposition deletion going on here at all (see my answer). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 25 '14 at 15:15
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    @SrJoven None of those links answer this question at all. It's a very fine question. In order to understand the issue better, try I live a great place or I work a great place. Seems like you can't work a place or live a place ... If you can't work a place, how come you can say this is a great place to work? – Araucaria Aug 25 '14 at 23:00
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Simply put: without the preposition, the infinitive is either a truly intransitive verb, or a truly transitive one; with the preposition, it is what is sometimes called a prepositional verb, i.e., a verb that—similar to how phrasal verbs work—must be paired with a preposition to take an object. The object is then not a direct object, but it is still semantically (and to a certain extent also syntactically) the object of the verb.

1A. I need a pen to write with.
1B. I need a pen to write.
2A. I have a book to write in.
2B. I have a book to write.

The difference here is clear: in the A sentences, it's explicitly stated that the pen is the instrument with which you will be writing and the book is the place you'll be writing. In 1B, a pen is just given as something that you need to have in order to carry out the act of writing; other things in that category would be paper, a desk, a chair, etc. (or these days, a laptop). In 2B, the book is simply the object of the verb.

In other words, when there is no preposition, you have to look at the constituents in the sentence to determine whether the verb is transitive or intransitive—if it's intransitive, the infinitive is often an infinitive of purpose (meaning in order to). When there is a preposition, you can usually assume the topic mentioned before the infinitive is part of a prepositional object, that is, the verb is acting in a mostly-transitive way, and the entire prepositional phrase is the object.

So what, then, of your example?

New York is a great place to live (in).

This doesn't seem to fit either: live in this sense does not take direct objects, and yet a place has no preposition.

This is because place isn't really and truly acting as a normal noun—it's more like the nominal form of the adverbial entity (some)where/here/there. Live in the sense we’re looking at here takes an adverbial phrase complement (like somewhere), but an adverbial phrase cannot be qualified by an adjective (well, it can; but its meaning changes a bit then), so a generic noun is substituted, acting as a stand-in.

If you replace place with a more regular noun that doesn't have this property, you'll see that they don't work:

*It's a great city to live.
*It’s a great street to live.

None of these two work, because you cannot *live a city/street the way you can live a place: a place is basically a noun phrase that has been semi-frozen as a pseudo-adverbial, acting like (some)where, so it takes no preposition. Cities and streets, though, do not do this, and they need to be part of a prepositional clause to be used adverbially like this. What does work is using an adverbial:

It's somewhere to live, I guess.

Naturally, if you use live as a transitive verb with a direct object, it works fine:

You only have one life to live!

And since place is still also a noun and can easily function as such, you can also use the prepositional verb live in [noun phrase] with it as the noun—which is why the double forms with and without the preposition are possible in your example.

  • I agree with most of your analysis, and you have made a strong case that (a) place is a special kind of noun. But you don't seem to explain why NY is a great place to live is possible, while ?this is a great place to live is probably dubious and *I live a great place is impossible. Or am I missing something? – Cerberus Aug 25 '14 at 15:22
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    @Cerberus This is a great place to live is perfectly fine, and ?I live a great place is at least borderline acceptable to me. Not sure why the non-cleft (for lack of a better word) version is less acceptable than the cleft one, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 25 '14 at 15:24
  • The cleft bit is what interests me (certain nouns being able to transitivise intransitive verbs is less remarkable to me): it happens in other languages too: NY is een mooie stad om te wonen but *ik woon een mooie stad. To me, the former kind of feels like elliptical for om in te wonen. Oh, and +1. – Cerberus Aug 25 '14 at 15:29
  • Yes; the fact that 'I live here / there / somewhere (round here)' are grammatical but 'I live a great place' isn't argues against comparable analyses. I can't access recent articles on preposition omission, eg "Variation in preposition omission in English ellipsis" [Joanna Nykiel , 2011]. But there is an interesting abstract from her article: 'The pattern of preposition omission in English elliptical constructions has not enjoyed much attention....' – Edwin Ashworth Aug 25 '14 at 16:02
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    I've found someone who supports the preposition deletion analysis, at Grammar-Quizzes.com: I have no money to buy the food (with). / We have one day to do it (in). / I need a pen to write (with). / He has to have a place to live (in). However, it does single out home and [some] place as being in some way different. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 25 '14 at 18:35

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