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Consider the following two phrases:

It's better to be <X> than <Y>.

Why be <X> when you can be <Y>?

I recently got in an argument with a friend about if (and why) there shouldn't be a "to" before the first "be" in the second one; it strikes me as odd and unsound to place a "to" in that position, but I'm unable to pinpoint the specific reason why it shouldn't be used.

  1. Is it correct to not use "to be" in the second phrase?
  2. How are these two phrases broken down and classified, and what are the grammatical rules governing them?

N.B. We are both non-native English speakers, and in our language (Italian) both phrases would use the same infinitive verb ("essere"), although they are logically different; hence the doubts about the proper English equivalent.

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    Why (should you) be X when you can be Y? – user66974 May 12 '15 at 19:31
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    Why be X? (which is grammatical, btw) is a Wh-infinitive. Most of them do use to: how to do it, when to do it, who to do it with. But why is severely restricted in its uses. It can't have a to (*Why to be X? is ungrammatical), and it can't be used as a relative pronoun unless the relative clause modifies the noun reason. How, although it gets a to, can't be used as a relative pronoun at all: *the way how to do it is impossible. – John Lawler May 12 '15 at 19:33
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It might be explained when we write the first sentence like this?

1) "It is better to be <x> than <y>."

2) "Why be <x> when you can be <y>?"

The main verb in the first sentence is the "is" at the beginning. So you do not compare the same.

The correct question to the first sentence would be:

2) "Why is it better to be <x> than <y>?"

Here you have got equal forms.

Additionally the first version left something out. Reading the question we add a bit to comprehend the sentence. Something like:

2) "Why do you want to be <x> when you can be <y>?" or

2) "Why should you want to be <x> when you can be <y>?" or

2) "Why would you like to be <x> when you can be <y>?"

When we look at this versions, we have the "to" before the first be and none before the second, according to

Modal verbs (such as can, must, and may) take an infinitive as their complement, but the to is removed.

as mentioned by dizzwave.

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There are certain specific instances where infinitive verbs aren't coupled with to. Here are some examples

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Modal verbs (such as can, must, and may) take an infinitive as their complement, but the to is removed.

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