I recently wondered about the use of "to use" and other verbs when expressing the purpose of an action. I noticed that purpose is often expressed by having a verb followed by "for" and a progressive form, as in the following example:

  • For memorizing her shopping list, my grandma started using a cell phone.

Alternatively, this seemed acceptable, too:

  • (In order) To memorize her shopping list, my grandma started using a cell phone.

However, I recently received corrections for a text in which I frequently used to former version in conjunction with the word "to use". This was changed by the corrector every single time, and I do not quite understand the reason for that.

Consider the following sentences:

  • I used a short example to explain my main ideas.
  • I used a short example for explaining my main ideas.

Is one of the two phrases incorrect or somehow discouraged? If so: Why is that, and what is the difference between "to use" and other verbs?


The example above may be more clear when switching to passive phrases:

  • A short example was used to explain the main ideas.
  • A short example was used for explaining the main ideas.

I think having "was used to" in that sentence makes it sound weird. That is why I preferred the version with "for" until now.

  • 1
    There is a special version of infinitive called a "purpose infinitive", that can optionally start with in order, as you note, whereas for memorizing is not a specfic construction and doesn't automatically signal purpose (though purpose can be interpreted in some contexts). When it's a choice between an idiomatic construction with additional senses and a general construction that can be interpreted the same way, but isn't idiomatic, using the general construction will often invite the inference that one chose it because it doesn't have the added purpose interpretation. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 14:38
  • I understand your point. Is there a reference for your last remark about inviting readers to disregard the purpose in general constructions? Personally, I think the general construction communicates purpose more clearly when "use" is the main verb.
    – SimonG
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 15:42
  • 1
    Purpose gets a higher ranking as a possibility with a verb like use, but it's not guaranteed unless it's clear that use X describes a choice between using X and using something else (which it doesn't always). In case of an obvious choice, practically any adjunct will be tested for purpose first. I.e, why choose X if not for some reason? Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 15:57
  • @JohnLawler Hmm. I'm not sure that's the nub here. If you take away the started the memorizing sentence seems quite ok to me ... Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 0:07

1 Answer 1


Here are two examples that may help.

A crowbar was used to open the door. This describes how the door-opening action was performed. The door could have been opened with a key instead.

The crowbar was used for opening doors. This describes how the crowbar was employed. It could alternatively have been used for breaking ice.

You may like to apply this reasoning to your own sentences. You can use simple word substitution. I think you will find it illuminating.

I hope this is useful.

  • 1
    +1, but I think it's better explained by specifically contrasting single occurrence with habitual practice. Then you can retain 'A crowbar was used for opening doors [in the long-abandoned barracks] [or the lads' hall of residence, after one of their weekly parties].' Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 16:40

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