You were wrong to pick that car

I was wise to go home that day.

I can't quite explain how the to-infinitive modifies the adjectives here. It's similar to sentences like "It's nice to see you" and "It's good to eat your vegetables" but "it" is an expletive pronoun while "you" and "I" are not, so I have a feeling how it modifies the adjective gives a different meaning. Would you reword the two sentences on the top like this:

You picked that car, and you were wrong.

I went home that day, and I was wise.

If so, I don't see how that rewording relates to the way the to-infinitives modify adjectives in sentences like "This car is easy to drive" or "I was anxious to go home."

  • Could it just be a shortening of to have picked that car? – Nick May 23 '16 at 23:07
  • I looked up the definition of "to" a bit, and it seems that it expresses a cause, which seems to be the best answer to the question. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/to It's at 1.3 in the section for infinitives. – Joe May 23 '16 at 23:15
  • Hi Joe. I see that you've accepted Deadrat's excellent post as the answer. However, excellent though Deardrat's post is, it cannot be the answer to your question. Why? Well, unfortunately, your examples do not contain tough adjectives at all. A tough construction has a gap at the end of the infinitive where the Object/Complement would be. The identity of this object is determined by the subject of the main clause. So for example in "This exercise is tough to do" the Object of the verb DO is missing. We understand, however, ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 25 '16 at 8:50
  • ... that the Object of the infinitival clause is the "This exercise". The sentence means "This exercise is difficult [[for someone or other] to do [this exercise]]" or perhaps easier to parse "This exercise is difficult to do it". You will notice that in your examples, the objects/complements of the verbs are not missing. There is no gap there. For example in "You were wrong to pick that car" the Object of the infinitival to pick is "that car". It certainly is not "you"! So, there is no way round it, I'm afraid: your sentences are 100% guaranteed to not be tough constructions. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 25 '16 at 8:55

The OP asked about the role of an infinitive following an adjective and followed by an object. I believe we can discern the syntactic nature of this construction by examining something similar called the tough construction, the syntax of which is discussed by Joasha Boutault in "A Tough Nut to Crack: A Semantico-Syntactic Analysis of Tough-Constructions in Contemporary English". Absolutely all this post following this initial paragraph down to the dividing line of tildes is a discussion of that paper, which is to say that absolutely none of that part is original to me, except for the examples, which I invented in an effort to follow the paper. Thus errors in the examples are mine and not Boutault's. The part after the tildes is mine and therefore I own any of its erroneous conclusions.

Tough constructions have the following variants:

  • Adj infinitive

    [1] The painting was extraordinary to behold.

  • Adj N infinitive. Lending its name to the construction, this variant has the adjective inside a noun phrase and modifyig the head of that phrase.

    [2] You're a tough nut to crack.

  • Quant infinitive

    [3] It's too much to handle.

  • NP infinitive

    [4] Those wood shingles will be a bear to maintain.

  • V infinitive, where V = cost or take

    [5a] It cost $100,000 to build.
    [5b] It took two years to complete.

Sticking with sentences like [1], and following Boutault, we can define the tough construction as a matrix clause with a main clause and a subordinate clause, the former consisting of

  • A subject, either a noun phrase ([6]) or a clause unto itself ([7a]), naturally in the nominative case and having a thematic role. I'm no expert in generative grammar, but I think this means the subject is the element most affected by the force of the verb

  • A stative verb

  • An adjective, optionally modified, that licenses a following clause

The latter consisting of

  • an infinitive clause with a transitive verb, either direct ([7a]), i.e, taking a direct object, or indirect ([7b]), i.e., taking a prepositional phrase as a complement.

  • the subject of which may be present ([8a]) or absent ([8b]) and

  • the object of which may be present only if the subject of the matrix clause is a dummy pronoun ([9a],[9b]).

[6] He is easy to get along with.

[7a] What the state has done is difficult to understand.
[7b] The topic is more difficult to think about in a crisis.

[8a] This is hard for me to hear.
[8b] This is hard to hear.

[9a] It is hard for me to hear this.
*[9b] This is hard for me to hear this.

From a generative grammar point of view, how do we generalize the cases with an object for the infinitive ([1]) and those missing an explicit object ([8b])? Since the missing object seems to be the same as the subject of the matrix clause, one solution is say that the missing object is raised. In [1], the car is picked, but if we have

[1b] You were wrong to pick.

say, in choosing up sides for a ball game, this means that both the wrongness belongs to you and you were the one picked. This apparently violates a cardinal rule of generative grammar, namely that co-referents cannot have different cases. Good thing, I suppose, since it seems to me that [1b] is ambiguous: it could mean you were the wrong one to be picked or you could be wrong to have made the choice.

Chomsky apparently solves this problem by declaring that the Adj-infinitive forms a single "complex adjective" through the application of various operators. For me, this is like talking about the distinctions between red and green unicorns.

Before examining a solution that avoids the pitfalls of these proposals, we take a detour into an interesting ambiguous sentence. Suppose you were at a ballet recital and asked an audience member, "Which one is your daughter?" whereupon you got the reply

[10] She's the beautiful dancer.

The adjective beautiful could have a narrow scope, applying only to the subject and thereby meaning, "No matter my daughter's talent for the dance, she's pretty and the rest are homely." On the other hand, beautiful could have a broader scope, applying to the subject and the action she effects, meaning, "She (and only she) is dancing beautifully, no matter how pretty she is." We can apply this dichotomy to the tough construction, finding two classes, which Boutault calls easytough and prettytough, named for the following canonical examples:

[11a] She is easy to get along with.
[11b] It is easy to get along with her.
*[11c] She is easy.

[12a] She is pretty to look at.
*[12b] It is pretty to look at her.
[12c] She is pretty.

Easytough constructions like [11a] allow the transposition to a sentence with a dummy pronoun subject like [11b], but do not allow the deletion of the infinitive clause like [11c]. ([11c] is grammatical but has an entirely different meaning from [11a].) It's the opposite for prettytough constructions like [12a]: there's no grammatical transposition to the dummy pronoun ([12b]), but the infinitive may be deleted without changing the sense ([12c]).

This might indicate that the adjectives easy and pretty modify different things. In prettytough constructions, the adjective gives a defining property of the subject, in a manner analogous to the narrow interpretation of [10]. This is why the infinitive may be dropped: the subject is still there. And it's why the dummy subject won't work: the adjective is trapped between a dummy pronoun and an infinitive, neither of which are appropriate for the defining adjective to modify.

However, in easytough constructions, the adjective modifies the subject only through the activity or state associated with the infinitive, as in the broader interpretation of [10]. In this case, the dummy transposition works because the infinitive is still there. Dropping the infinitive won't work because the infinitive is necessary to provide the state or action.

Dropping the infinitive in prettytough constructions keeps both grammaticality and the sense of the original. Not necessarily the entire sense, though. This is hard to see with pretty since what other way can she be pretty except by looks? But consider

[12aa] The car is cheap to buy.
[12ca] The car is cheap.

In both cases, it's the car that's not expensive, but [12ca] allows for the possibility that the car is cheap to operate. These considerations signal that in prettytough constructions, the infinitive is an adjunct.

In easytough constructions, the infinitive cannot be dropped, making this obligatory construction a complement to the adjective.

The operators of generative grammar that Boutault proposes to make the adjunct/complement distinction work is far beyond my ability to comprehend. As far as I'll go is note Boutault's claim that almost all tough constructions have an evaluative meaning and not a purely descriptive one. Thus we do not say the descriptive

*[13a] it was dark to film

We have to say something like

[13b] it was too dark to film

allowing the adverb to provide the evaluation. I gather that the operators necessary to generate the proper parse trees work on the scope of the evaluation. (Don't take my word for it, because I think we're now talking about a herd of unicorns.)


Now all of this generative machinery is in place to take care of the (generally) absent object of the infinitive, the exception being the object's appearance in the case of a dummy pronoun subject of the main clause ([9a]). In all cases, the object, explicit or implicit, is a co-referent of the subject. But in the OP's example, we have

[14a] You were wrong to pick that car.

In this case, the object of the infinitive (that car) is different from the the subject, which refers to the errant person addressed. However, it's now the subject of the infinitive that's co-referent with the subject of the main clause, i.e., the errant party and the picker are the same. And it's the subject of the infinitive that is generally absent:

*[14b] You were wrong for you to pick that car.

appearing only when a dummy pronoun appears as the subject of the main clause ([14c]).

But notice we can still apply the rules to see that [14a] is analogous to the easytough category. We may transpose to a dummy pronoun version

[14c] It was wrong of you to pick that car.

and we can't drop the infinitive without changing the sense:

***[14d] You were wrong.

Which leads to the conclusion that the infinitive clause is a complement to the adjective.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is a very interesting post indeed, but I'm going to have to make you do even more! The problem is that tough constructions have a gap where the object/complement of the infinitival clause would be. This object gap is determined by the subject of the matrix (main) clause. So for example take "This sentence is difficult to parse ___". That gap at the end there is coreferential with this sentence. It means "This sentence is difficult [ to parse it]. So if you look at all of your examples, you'll see that the identity of the missing object in the infinitival clause is determined ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 25 '16 at 8:38
  • ... by the subject of the matrix clause. For example "Those wood shingles will be a bear to maintain" where the understood object of maintain is "Those wood shingles". This is basically the defining characteristic of tough constructions. But it doesn't apply to OP's sentence. wrong and wise are not tough adjectives - unfortunately. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 25 '16 at 8:43
  • 1
    Me? I think it was written so clearly, and in such a way that I understood everything, I had to upvote. Wish I could also upvote the: For me, this is like talking about the distinctions between red and green unicorns. – Mari-Lou A May 25 '16 at 9:38
  • Hi Deadrat. I think it would be great if you put this whole post on that other question over there and merge it with your answer that's already there. I set the question up so that there's an example of each of your tough constructions numbered here 1-5 (apart from I changed the order, so your no 4 is my title example) – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 25 '16 at 19:19

The infinitive is a verb, and as such it can do verbish things like take an object:

to pick that car

or to be modified by a temporal adverbial phrase

to go home that day

But the infinitive isn't a simple predicate, i.e., it can't act as the main verb in a clause. But it can act in other roles in a sentence, roles that are also taken by other parts of speech. For example, as a subject, like a noun:

To pick that car was a stroke of luck

Or as a explanatory modifier of a verb, like an adverb:

I bought that car to commute to work.

Or as the modifier of a noun like an adjective:

The best way to buy the car is with cash.

By the way, the word it in "It's nice to see you" isn't an expletive; it's a pronoun acting as a dummy subject.

| improve this answer | |
  • I thought "expletive pronoun" and "dummy pronoun" were synonymous terms in this context. – herisson May 23 '16 at 1:18
  • @sumelic Quite right. My ignorance was showing (still is, I guess, and will continue unless I can muster the interest to fix an answer from last November). – deadrat May 23 '16 at 4:33
  • The last example is interesting (The best way to buy the car is with cash) but you lost me when you describe it as having an adjective-like function. Does it modify way? – TRomano May 23 '16 at 19:16
  • To buy the car with cash is the best way. – TRomano May 23 '16 at 19:18
  • @TimRomano I think it does modify the noun way, restricting way to a commercial transaction. There are other ways with cars -- the best way to drive, the best way to insure, etc. To buy the car with cash is the best way has the infinitive acting like a noun as the subject. Same analysis as my example To pick that car was a stroke of luck, no? – deadrat May 23 '16 at 21:18
  • You were wrong to pick that car =
    It was wrong (of you) (for you) to pick that car =
    For you to pick that car was wrong (of you)

  • I was wise to go home that day =
    It was wise (of me) (for me) to go home that day =
    For me to go home that day was wise (of me).

The predicate adjectives (be) wrong and (be) wise are flip psychological predicates, which means they have an experiencer argument, which may be the subject, as in the first sentences above.

But the experiencer NP can also be expressed as the object of a preposition (of with these predicates), as in the last two sentences. This experiencer NP is coreferential here with the subject of the infinitive clause. I.e, I was the one being wise, and I was also the one who went home. Subjects of infinitives are often deleted, but they can occur as the object of the preposition for.

So, essentially, these are ordinary complement infinitive clauses, governed by the predicate as usual (even predicate adjectives), and governing Equi from the experiencer NP (whether it's subject or not) that deletes the subject NP of the infinitive under identity. In the original sentences, it's just A-Equi; in the second and third versions above, other rules apply.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Oh, and don't worry about "modifying". These infinitives don't modify anything; they're arguments of the predicate adjective. – John Lawler May 23 '16 at 19:08
  • Regarding the "experiencer", is that a description of a kind of passive, non-agentive role? – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 19:47
  • 1
    It's neither active nor passive, actually. I simply means that the predicate has a sensory/emotional/psychological meaning that requires a sentient (normally human) experiencer. This experiencer is often not expressed (That hurts, That's stupid, He's scary), like the subject of infinitive or gerunds, but also like them, it can be either indefinite (i.e, to anybody) or it can be determined from the structure (where it usually refers to the speaker). Experiencers can appear're in many syntactic rules, but they're not limited to subjects. – John Lawler May 24 '16 at 14:15
  • What does flip mean in "flip psychological predicates"? – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 7:46
  • It just means that two arguments are reversed, as in the flip perception verbs: I listened to/heard that vs That sounds good. The perceiver can be the subject of a normal sense verb, but a flip verb has the perception as subject (in the case of these sentences, the perception is an action clause that gets moved around). Probly this is antique terminology, like Equi and Neg-Raising. – John Lawler May 26 '16 at 12:44

An infinitive can serve as a subject, direct object, subject complement, adjective, or adverb in a sentence. The only thing that can modify an adjective is an adverb. The infinitives in your sentences function as adverbs. This is also true of the infinitives in sentences that begin with "It."

You can rewrite the sentences as you suggest, but at a cost. The revised sentences contain an element of ambiguity that the originals don't, because the separate clauses allow for the possibility that "I picked that car" and "I was wrong" relate to two entirely different questions. Of course the context will clarify the intended meaning, but the original version of sentence actually links the picking of the car and the being wrong in a way the revisions don't.

| improve this answer | |
  • So how would you reword the sentence to link the picking of the car and the being wrong? Also, for a sentence like "I'm pleased to meet you" would it be reword like "I met yet, and I am pleased" or "I meet you, and I am pleased"? – Joe Nov 26 '15 at 6:48
  • You could say, "I picked that car, which was a mistake," or "My picking that car was a mistake" or "Picking that car was my mistake." Along the same line, you could say, "I am meeting you, which is a pleasure," but colloquially that seems impossible. Only slightly more likely is "I'm glad we're meeting." Most likely is simply, "It's a pleasure." "I'm pleased to meet you" is so standard, almost anything else sounds forced. At the end of the conversation, you could easily say "I'm glad we met." – user66965 Nov 26 '15 at 16:04
  • But your rewordings say that the verb was wrong while "you were wrong to pick that car" says that the noun was wrong. – Joe Nov 26 '15 at 20:41
  • First, "picking" in this case is not a verb. It is a gerund, which means it functions as a noun. That is why it is preceded by a possessive pronoun. Second, your version says "you" were wrong only insofar as you picked that car--in other words, "your" wrongness is directly tied to this pick. In my version, the wrongness is still tied to the pick, which "you" own. In both cases: there is a car, you picked it, that was a mistake. – user66965 Nov 27 '15 at 17:03
  • 1
    @surlawda Gerunds are verbs. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '16 at 12:47

You were wrong- (to pick that car)
I was wise (to go home that day).

Both of these are excellent examples of adverbial phrases. Since adverbs modify adjectives, these phrases modify the adjective, wrong and right. They describe what was right and wrong to do.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.