1. She is not a person to fear.

  2. She is not a person to be feared.

It is fine to use both forms, but I cannot catch the definite difference between them in meaning. Also, why is it OK to use both forms? It seemed to me that when there is "noun+to phrase" structure, this to phrase is linked to the subject. For example:

We didn't have anything to wear. (Who had nothing to wear? Us!)

But unlike this example sentence, the to phrase in sentence 1 implies that I or we are the people who should not fear her, which means that it's not modifying its subject "her", but other nouns that are not even in the sentence. The sentence itself makes perfect sense to me, but I don't know why it is. Can someone please explain why it is grammatically fine to use sentence 1 and the difference in meaning between those two sentences?

2 Answers 2


They are different structures.


She is to be feared.


*She is to fear.

(* means ungrammatical, or unacceptable).

From this you can see that to be feared is what is called a "small clause", the result of Whiz-deletion:

She is a person [who is] to be feared.

So she is the subject of that small clause, which thus has to be passive.

But the first form does not have this structure: She is a person who is to fear is probably not grammatical, but even if it is it doesn't have the same meaning. The to fear is a modifier on the noun person, and can't appear as a complement.

She therefore does not have to be the subject of fear; and if she were we would use a different structure again such as She is a fearful person or She is a person who is afraid, or She is a person fearing XYZ; so pragmatics leads us to interpret She is a person to fear as meaning that she is the object of fear.

  • Is there a name for to phrase used in "a person to fear"? Is there a technical term for it? I tend to think every adjectival phrase as being used with whiz-deletion, which creates lots of problems for me... so what are those adjectival phrases used without whiz deletion called?
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 0:33
  • What if the sentence were "This is a fun book to read." Isn't that the same structure? Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 1:02
  • Most definitely. I think that you remember I have difficult explaining adjectival phrases with no Whiz-deletion in grammatical terms, so I just wanted to get into that area a little further.
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 1:36

I think this is a bit of a grey zone. You can find

  • There is nothing to be seen


  • There is nothing to see.
  • Does it mean that you do not agree with Mr.Fine?
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 1:02
  • 1
    I just want to show that there is a problem that can't be fathomed properly. Probably there are individual differences and preferences how various people in various regions use such structures. The passive infinitive is frequent in BrE, but the active infinitive can be found, too.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 1:06

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