I am not an English native speaker, and I have a question about the following sentences:

I believe that Mary will arrive tomorrow. (grammatical)

*I believe Mary to arrive tomorrow. (ungrammatical)

Why can't we say "I believe Mary to arrive tomorrow"?

I believed (that) he was honest. = I believed him (to be) honest.

My dictionary says that both sentences are grammatically correct, so I am really confused.

When can I use "S (subject) V (verb) O (object) OC (objective complement)" structure with the verb believe?

  • 1
    Could you explain what these "O, X, or S V O OC" are?
    – Afsane
    Dec 28, 2015 at 14:38
  • I think he means Subject, Verb, Object, but I don't know X or OC Dec 28, 2015 at 14:50
  • 2
    To arrive is an object in this sentence, not a verb. It would be like trying to say, "I believe Mary car tomorrow." Dec 28, 2015 at 16:18
  • 1
    Huh. Is that British English for "object compliment"?
    – lly
    Aug 8, 2018 at 4:39
  • 1
    @michael_timofeev "Mary to arrive" is collectively the object in the sentence. It's the exact same structure as "I believe Mary to be...", "I want Mary to arrive...", or "I expect Mary to arrive" and nothing at all like "I believe Mary car".
    – lly
    Aug 8, 2018 at 4:41

4 Answers 4


Well, I guess this won't get the bounty since you want someone to explain why it's ungrammatical, but

it is grammatical.

I mean, we don't usually use this structure for the verb "arrive", but we use it for "be", "have", "possess", "mean", "hold", "understand"... (See also here.)

I can immediately parse "I believe her to arrive tomorrow" as a formal, fairly stuffy answer to the question "When will she get here?" meaning "I believe [it is the case that] she'll arrive tomorrow".

It's just not terribly common.

The archaic feeling of this way of talking that Resber picked up on comes from the way it mimics Latin grammar instead of using the more natural and versatile "that clause". Using English this way (along with not splitting infinitives, &c.) was much more common back when everyone publishing a book had sat through years of Latin classes with a tutor or at their grammar school.

Going back to that list of infinitives that more commonly show up with "believe", it seems to be the case that English speakers tend to use that structure with stative verbs rather than active ones. It's common in general to use "that clauses" for verbs reporting things (say, tell, &c.) or describing mental processes (think, know, believe, &c.). Expressing it that way gives you more freedom to mark tense and mood or add adverbs and additional clauses. That extra nuance is more important when discussing actions.

It's not common at all.

Specifically, this paper notes research that shows that English almost exclusively uses "believe [obj.] [inf.]" for stative verbs or perfective ones (i.e., "I believe her to have arrived yesterday"). There are exceptions and even their example of a "mistake"

The new government, wrongly believing tribal leaders to support Pakistan in the war, stationed a counter-insurgency force in the area.

is perfectly clear, if a bit clunky. Emending it to "to have supported" certainly sounds more natural but has a different meaning. (In that case, their support or even the entire war is already finished.)

Still, to the extent that native speakers tell you such sentences are "wrong" or "too awkward", that's the mechanism underneath why. If you want to call it a "rule" and the exceptions "ungrammatical", you can but it's not really anything they're conscious of doing and is just a side effect of wanting to have more freedom to adjust or describe active verbs, especially their tense.

  • 1
    I have no qualms with "I expect her to arrive tomorrow". But maybe the original sentence should be rewritten as: "I believe [that] she is [scheduled] to arrive tomorrow"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 8, 2018 at 7:23
  • Maybe you're unaware, but it was the bounty benefactor who posted an answer stating that the sentence is "absolutely grammatically correct".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 8, 2018 at 7:27
  • @Mari-LouA That hardly matters if the bounty is focused on something else. You're right that your rewrite is also grammatical; that's not germane at all here, but you could include that in an answer explaining and sourcing how it is ungrammatical as stated. That's not what this answer says, though.
    – lly
    Aug 8, 2018 at 7:32
  • I'm not knowledgeable enough to write a good answer here.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 8, 2018 at 7:41
  • @Mari-LouA If you're curious, you could read through the paper linked in my answer. They assume it is "ungrammatical with exceptions" but go into interesting detail on related topics.
    – lly
    Aug 8, 2018 at 7:48

I think the problem here comes from the verb, believe. One can say, "I believe him to be honest." But, when you say "I believe him to arrive tomorrow," I believe that most native speakers would find that awkward, even if grammatically correct. I think because "believe" is a transitive verb that requires an object in this case. It gets the object "him" but the phrase "to arrive tomorrow" does not conform to general pattern we are used to hearing. It sounds almost too formal or archaic, like "I wish him to wake up now." It is an unusual choice for an OC. When you use the form of "to be" it acts like an equation making the following word work like an adjective: him = honest. But when you use another type of verb it does not quite work the same: Mary = to arrive? The second example sounds like "I believe Mary arriving tomorrow." Native speakers would expect "I believe (that) Mary is arriving tomorrow". I hope this helps, I cannot find a term for the group of verbs that fall into this category or a specific rule that precludes using certain infinitives after believe.

  • then is "believe" only the verb that I cannot use To+dynamic(or active) verbs? Cuz I can find "I want you to meet my grandmother", or "I ordered him to go". Dec 29, 2015 at 9:42

Let's compare three sentences (assuming that we are allowed to use only will for the future tense for comparison) as follows:

(1) I believe that Mary arrived.
(2) I believe that Mary will arrive.

Now, contrast the above two sentences with the below one:

(3) *I believe Mary to arrive. (ungrammatical with *)

As you can clearly notice, you can never tell whether No. (3) means (1) or (2). It is a very important difference in context where you need to clarify a tense of the verb. (the time of arriving).

To infinitive is called infinitive because it can't inflect for tense and person. In order to clearly specify the tense, you should not use to infinitive.

Now, contrast the above (1) and (2) with your example:

(4) I believed (that) he was honest. = (5) I believed him (to be) honest.

Believed and was in No. (4) used the past tense. There could be no confusion.

In No. (5), there is only one tense, i.e. believed which is the past tense. However, you can use to-infinitive because it indicates the same tense as believed. Also, to be could be omitted as it is not absolutely necessary and the adjective honest could function as an object complement on its own.

There are many English transitive verbs that can't be used in the No. (3) structure, i.e.:

*I think him to come tomorrow. *I hope him to come tomorrow. *I guess him to come tomorrow.

Not only are they ungrammatical, but they don't sound natural.

I want you to tell me the truth. I hope to see you soon.

The above two sentences are all grammatically correct as there is no particular reason to specify any tense for to tell the truth and to see.

The above explanation doesn't cover all transitive verbs in English and you need to learn how to use them on a case-by-case basis.

However, if you focus on tense, object, object complement and that-clause after a verb, you would easily understand some patterns for English verbs. The following link explains Verb + object + TO-infinitive structure. And this link lists the verbs that have Verb + that-clause structure.

  • @Sophy No. It doesn't work that way.
    – user140086
    Dec 30, 2015 at 15:39
  • 2
    Um... then how about "I expect him to arrive very soon"? is it wrong? Dec 30, 2015 at 16:00
  • @Lee As I said in my answer, there are many transitive verbs in English. Don't try to simplify it. As I said, you have to study it on a case-by-case basis.
    – user140086
    Dec 30, 2015 at 16:04
  • @Lee My pleasure. Your question is actually a very good question. But remember, you have to look up the dictionary and read as many example sentences as possible. It will help you a lot more. :-)
    – user140086
    Dec 30, 2015 at 16:08

Unlike all the answers, I think that 'I believe Mary to arrive tomorrow' it is absolutely grammatically correct, but just semantically incorrect. How come 'my belief causes Mary to arrive tomorrow'? Do I have a supernatural power? It just, as it is, does not make sense. At least for me, it is read as 'I can handle Mary to arrive tomorrow by my belief', but 'I belive him (to be) honest' does make sense because it is read as 'My belief is for him to be honest' and in this case 'him' is drawn as a man who is honest, so it is both grammatically and semantically correct. Don't fully trust my opinion, it is just my subjective answer.

(EDITED) I have come to realize my opinion is not plausible at all in resolving the problem and very ridiculous even to me, so I've come to decide to edit it. Anyway, give me one more chance to let me elucidate it based on my second thought. I think it is deeply associated with the tense problem related to "to infinitive", because If we were saying "She believes him to arrive tomorrow", we couldn't exactly fix the tense of the sentence at some point. Thereby, it can mean either "She believes he would arrive tomorrow" or "She believes he will arrive tomorrow". It can be meant for the formar if she has already been told in the past directly by him or someone else that he will arrive tomorrow, and therefore she still believes it is true that he would arrive tomorrow. In this way, I am sure that active verbs cannot be used in such ways only if a sentence cannot fix tense.

[1] She believes him to have arrived home.

It's correct because even though being an active verb it is parsed only as "She believes he have arrived".

[2] She believes him to understand her.

It's also correct, but the reason is different because it is kind of a state verb and she generally believes that he understands her regardless of time, so whether tense is past or future is not important.

[3] She believes him to be honest.

It's correct as well as [2].

  • 1
    Interesting. Can you explain the difference between ‘‘believe’’ and ‘‘expect’’ that allows “I expect Mary to arrive tomorrow” to be perfectly correct? Feb 23, 2018 at 18:15
  • 1
    @Scott First of all, to speak about the logic of user140086, I am somewhat doubt about his explanation, though I agree to some extent, that 'I think him to come tomorrow' is the case in (3) ,because 'tomorrow' is definitely specifying tense of the sentence to be future, so that there is a bit fault of explaining clearly why 'I think him to come tomorrow' does not make sense based on his logic, and let's think out of box whether my thought, hope, or guess can really affect an object 'to behave'.
    – GKK
    Feb 24, 2018 at 4:25
  • @Scott I mean they can't in such sentences, but yes, there is a possible context in which 'think' is acceptable that affects an object to behave.
    – GKK
    Feb 24, 2018 at 4:25
  • @Scott Returning to your topic, the main difference between believe and expect is that the believe is entirely defendant on the behavior of someone, so that if it is not used in the context of my opinion it does not make sense at all, whereas the expect is fundamentally different from the meaning of believe, and usually used in arranged events, so that it can be used in such construction more often than the believe.
    – GKK
    Feb 24, 2018 at 4:36
  • @Scott I don't know whether I completely and correctly conveyed my opinion. And keep in mind it is very subjective opinion. Anyway, I want to hear your response to it as soon as possible.
    – GKK
    Feb 24, 2018 at 4:39

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