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I have a question on this sentence

"It is a profitable thing, if one is wise, to seem foolish." -Aeschylus

What role does to seem play in this sentence.

I think it is an infinitive. But does it act as verb, adverb, direct object, subect?,noun?

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Edit Note

This answer was written before Original Question was edited. The sentence is not quite the same but this post should still provide the answer to the new question.


The answer

It is a profitable thing to seem foolish.

The infinitive clause here is the phrase:

  • to seem foolish

Notice that this is best understood as a clause, not a verb.

The grammatical function of this phrase is often referred to as Extraposed Subject. It is functioning as a Complement of the verb BE. However, we understand this as meaning:

  • [To seem foolish] is profitable.

The reason we don't like to use sentences like the one above is that it is difficult to process sentences when we have an infinitival clause as Subject. We prefer to transform the clause by using a meaningless dummy Subject, the pronoun IT, and then to move the infinitive clause to the end of the sentence/larger clause:

  • It is profitable [to seem foolish].

We often also do this with finite clauses too:

  • [That Mary punched Bob] surprised me.
  • It surprised me [that Mary punched Bob].

Notice that although the original sentences had the infinitival and finite clauses as Subjects, the transformed sentences have the word it as a Subject. The Extraposed Subjects are not grammatical Subjects any more, they are Complements of the verb BE and SURPRISE respectively, and they occur within the Predicate - not as part of the Subject phrases.

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    I agree with your points 99% except that you call "the extraposed subjects" are not grammatical subjects. They are grammatical subjects wich are extaposed. It is dummy as it means nothing and what means nothing cannot be a subject (of course it is arguable -:)). +1 – user140086 Nov 9 '15 at 16:50
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    @Rathony: Dummies are inserted for the purpose of being subjects. Subjects do not have to mean anything; they just have to pass the tests for subjecthood -- passivize when transitive, undergo Raising, undergo Equi, pronominalize in tags, invert with auxiliary in questions and negatives, contract with auxiliary, etc. Dummy it and there pass with flying colors. They're subjects, all right. – John Lawler Nov 9 '15 at 20:59
  • @JohnLawler I understand your valid point. I would appreciate your input in this follow-up question if you don't mind. Thanks. – user140086 Nov 10 '15 at 7:35

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