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folks Here are two sentences that I find difficult to understand the grammar during my reading.

  1. Last year, two of her ministers suggested that convicted tycoons be pardoned if they could contribute to boosting economic growth.
  2. He also argued that the heavy-handed approach taken by the government to promoting innovation is in fact retarding it.

As a foreign English speaker, I would have said "contribute to boost" and "approach taken to promote" . Why in these phrases the article uses v. + ing. Does the -ing form suggest a clause?

Thank you very much for your help.

  • 1
    +1. That's a good question. When to use a -ing VP versus when to use an infinitival VP. And of course, there's always the question of whether or not there is any difference in meaning between them. :) – F.E. Jul 14 '15 at 18:28
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In your sample sentences, boosting and promoting are gerunds - words that end "ing" and act like nouns. I like swimming and Swimming is fun are interchangeable with "I like cheese" and "Cheese is delicious", for example.

So the minister could suggest that tycoons contribute to a fund, or contribute to a repository - those are both nouns. And they can contribute to boosting economic growth, in much the same way. And the government might have an approach to poverty, or an approach to corruption, or an approach to promoting innovation. These gerund phrases work just like nouns, and can be the subject or object of sentences, for example.

  • I would say your phrase examples are parallel rather than interchangeable. – dennisdeems Jul 14 '15 at 20:43
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  1. Last year, two of her ministers suggested that convicted tycoons be pardoned if they could contribute to boosting economic growth.

  2. He also argued that the heavy-handed approach taken by the government to promoting innovation is in fact retarding it.

Sentence (1)

In the first sentence the verb CONTRIBUTE takes a prepositional phrase as a complement. Specifically this verb takes phrases with the preposition TO. We can use this verb plus preposition combination with nouns:

  • He contributed to our fund.

Here the preposition to is taking a noun phrase as a complement. In the original example it takes a clause. Now, the preposition to does not takes finite clauses. We cannot use a clause with a tensed verb after to. If we want to use a clause after to, we need a clause with an -ing form of the verb. In this case that clause is:

  • boosting economic growth.

Alternative sentence (1)

Now, we could make a sentence that looks very similar, but which would in fact have a different structure and different meaning. The verb CONTRIBUTE can be used without a complement:

  • We want you to contribute.

So we could make a sentence where the tycoons will be pardoned if they contribute, but we don't say what they are contributing to. We could also add on an adjunct (sometimes called an "adverbial phrase") which explains why they will contribute. We can use an infinitive of purpose to show this. Infinitives of purpose are used to explain why an action is done:

  • I came to London to learn English
  • Tycoons should be pardoned if they contribute to boost economic growth

In the first sentence the purpose of coming to London was: to learn English. In the second the purpose of making a contribution was: to boost economic growth. So we could have another sentence that looks like sentence (1) but means something slightly different:

  1. Last year, two of her ministers suggested that convicted tycoons be pardoned if they could contribute to boost economic growth.

This is the alternative sentence that the OP is asking about. It looks similar to (1) but means something very slightly different.

Sentence (2)

Sentence (2) has some interesting grammar. It includes an example of heavy element shift. This sounds complicated, but it isn't. Sometimes when the complement of a verb or noun is very long, we like to shift it from it's normal position so that it occurs towards the end of the phrase. So for example in:

  • She made the man very happy

... the phrase the man is the complement of the verb make, more specifically the direct object. There's another phrase there very happy which is a predicative complement comes after the object. Notice that if we change the order of the phrases the result is not good:

  • She made very happy the man.

However, if the direct object is long, heavy, we can move it to the end of the verb phrase:

  • She made very happy the man whom she had spent so many years chastising.

This is what has happened in sentence two. If we put the parts of the noun phrase in their normal order it's easier to see what's happening:

  • He also argued that [the heavy-handed approach to promoting innovation [taken by the government]] is in fact retarding it.

Here it is easier to see that the noun approach takes a complement headed by the preposition to. We normally say the "approach to something". As with sentence (1) the preposition in this sentence cannot take a finite clause it takes a clause headed by an -ing form of the verb:

  • promoting innovation

In the original sentence the preposition phrase has been moved over the rest of the noun phrase (taken by the government) and put at the end.

Alternative sentence (2)

Now the original sentence (2) could have a very different structure if it contained the plain form of the verb, promote. This is the Original Poster's alternative to sentence (2):

  1. He also argued that the heavy-handed approach taken by the government to promote innovation is in fact retarding it.

In this sentence the noun approach does not have a complement. The noun phrase is being modified by this clause:

  • taken by the government to promote innovation

In this version of the sentence the phrase to promote innovation is an infinitive of purpose. It explains why the government took this approach. They did it in order to promote innovation. The to here is not a preposition. It is part of the infinitival construction. Again the meaning of this sentence is subtly different from the original sentence, number (2).

Conclusion

The word to in the original sentences is a preposition which only takes -ing clauses, not finite ones. For this reason it has -ing forms of the verbs boost and promote. In the Original Poster's examples, the word to is part of an infinitival construction. It introduces infinitives of purpose. Although the alternative sentences look very similar and the meanings are comparable, the underlying structure and the more subtle shades of meaning are actually different.

  • Thank you for the long post and the time you spent. I really appreciate it. Took me a while to get the idea. So in sentence (1), if we use "to boost", it means that tycoons are pardoned because they could do something ELSE that contribute to the growth, which could be irrelevant to their conviction. But for the second one, I don't get it. Are they both explain why the government took this approach. They did it in order to promote innovation? – zzhandles Jul 14 '15 at 20:19
  • @zzhandles OK, so, in the "heavy handed approach to promoting innovation" their method of promoting innovation was heavy handed. In the "heavy handed approach taken ... to promote innovation" the very purpose of taking a heavy-handed-approach was to promote innovation. In the first case the heavy handedness of the approach may be incidental. In the second it is part of the design to create innovation. It's a subtle difference ... - and may not be important in this piece of writing ... :) – Araucaria Jul 15 '15 at 0:18
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Last year, two of her ministers suggested that convicted tycoons be pardoned if they could contribute to boosting economic growth.

"Boosting economic growth" is a noun phrase that is an indirect object of "contribute to".

He also argued that the heavy-handed approach taken by the government to promoting innovation is in fact retarding it.

"Promoting innovation" is a noun phrase that is an indirect object of "taken to".

Both examples may look confusing because the "to" next to the verb makes it look like an infinitive, but that is pure coincidence. In both cases "to" is a preposition.

  • 1
    Thank you. That was exactly where it confused me. But in these cases, if we say contribute to boost economic growth and approach taken to promote innovation, are they grammatically correct too or not? – zzhandles Jul 14 '15 at 18:06
  • @zzhandles, you're welcome. "Contribute to boost economic growth" can makle sense, but only in a different context and with a different meaning from the original one. It would mean"contribute [something] [to something], in order to boost economic growth". However, in this context, there's no clue what the contribution is to, so most readers wouldn't understand this sentence. "Approach taken to promote innovation" also makes sense, but again with a different meaning: it would mean "approach [to something] that has been taken in order to boost economic growth". – Karasinsky Jul 14 '15 at 18:56
  • Um. I am not sure if I get it right. Does it mean, if we say, "they contribute to boost economic growth" instead of "they contribute to boosting economic growth". the contribution is no longer they but something else. For the second case, "approach taken to promote innovation" means, the promotion of innovation is not the direct result of the approach, there is something between the approach and innovation which is not mentioned, for instance, subsidies. Is it right? – zzhandles Jul 14 '15 at 19:44
  • If someone asked "why do they contribute?", you could answer with your new sentence "they contribute to boost economic growth". To has yet another role from the one it has in the sentences in your original question: contribute is still transitive but now no object is stated, and "to" = "in order to" (i.e. it expresses purpose). I'd be happy to clarify this but it strays from your original question and I suggest it would be better to ask about this as a separate question (unless those with more experience of the protocol here suggest a better alternative). – Karasinsky Jul 15 '15 at 17:06
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In short, if you can replace the verb with a noun, the verb is a gerund:

I look forward to seeing this film / I look forward to it.

It contributed to killing her / It contributed to her death.

If you can't, it's an infinitive. I want to do it = > You can't say "*I want to it"

I came to see you => I came [in order] to see you.

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