Prompted by the use of a poster who obviously uses supine as a variant for to-infinitive I was really a bit annoyed about such confusion of terms, as supine is a term in Latin grammar for a rare verb form.

So I googled for supine and looked up the word in Oxford Dictionaries. They have nothing about the use of supine /'su:pain/'sju:pain/ as a variant for to-infinitive.

Astonishingly en.wikipedia mentions that supine is sometimes used for to-infinitive, but only when it is used in subject position. I have the impression wikipedia has digged up a term that was last used a hundred years ago. Wikipedia has a preference for rare grammar terms.

As I said this is my impression. But I would like to hear views of members of this forum. The term is not listed in the register of Oxford Guide to English Grammar nor of Longman English Grammar.



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    Virtually any grammatical term, from virtually any language, can be and has been used to refer in some way to English grammar. This is why consulting a number of sources about English grammar is not a good strategy; -- there is a lot of bullshit out there, and anybody who has an opinion, however silly, is encouraged to add to it. Consequently online grammatical advice tends to be contradictory. For the record, English has no supine. – John Lawler Jun 23 '15 at 17:32
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    John, I didn't dare to call the term bullshit, I don't have the authority you have, but I am very grateful for your evaluation of the term. – rogermue Jun 23 '15 at 18:06

The OED does indeed record one of the definitions of the noun supine as "to-infinitive", but notes it is now rare.

1b. In English: the to-infinitive. Also in German: the infinitive with zu. Now rare. These forms derive from the use of the preposition with a dative infinitive.

The most recent attestation given for this sense is from 2000:

2000 W. S. Coblin & J. A. Levi tr. F. Varo Gram. Mandarin Lang. viii. 123 The supine is rendered by the simple form, [e.g.,] ‘to love’ gai.

Since the OED records word senses in chronological order, and since the first entry for the noun supine (1a, immediately preceding sense 1b, quoted above) is:

1a. A Latin verbal noun with the same stem as the passive participle, used only in the accusative and ablative cases esp. to denote purpose.

It appears this application to English grammar is a holdover from when classical educations venerated Rome, and English linguists and grammarians explicitly tried to model English grammatical terms and constructs after Latin ones.

In recent decades that has become unfashionable (or, more strongly, explicitly considered misguided) in linguistic circles, which is probably why you (or I) haven't encountered this usage before: it is obsolete.

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    A Latin supine is horribile dictu. I don't see any relationship between a verb form as dictu and an English to-infinitive. – rogermue Jun 23 '15 at 17:32
  • @rogermue I am not versed enough in grammar or Latin to understand your comment. My guess is the relation between the Latin and English terms is that both supines are inert (not moving: lying flat on their backs); the subjects of other (more active) verbs. – Dan Bron Jun 23 '15 at 17:36
  • The Latin term is a fantasy term and I don't think the term has anything to do with the idea of lying on one's back, but who knows. In any case, I don't see infinitives as verb forms that lie on their back. Grammar terms should give an insight into the things of language, with nonsense-terms we don't get any understanding. – rogermue Jun 23 '15 at 17:44
  • @rogermue Hey, I'm not here to argue with you. I don't know enough to even make an attempt at it :). I do think of verbal nouns -- nouns which have the force, or appearance, of a verb, but are nouns nonetheless -- are fairly characterized as inert (as all nouns are, and no verbs are). Nouns are acted upon, verbs act. – Dan Bron Jun 23 '15 at 17:45
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    Good call to confess our ignorance, @DanBron. The etymology of supine suggests that we are not sure why Latin used the expression supinum verbum. Sometimes insight into the things of language comes from quiet contemplation rather than vigorous argument, rog. – ScotM Jun 23 '15 at 17:53

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