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Take the following sentence:

It is better to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks than to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify.

For the above sentence, I assume "to go in a direction" is something like a noun phrase?

Can someone explain a little bit what "to go in a direction" is in this sentence?

3 Answers 3

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Overall the structure is (using NP to mean noun phrase): NP is better than NP.

Both NPs are nominalized sentences, formed by combining the for-to complementizer with a S (using S to mean sentence).

The first S is: You underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks.
The second S is: You go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify.

The for-to complementizer combines with the S it goes with by combining "for" with the subject and "to" with a non-finite version of the verb phrase of the sentence. "Non-finite" means that tense is not expressed. I don't know what the tenses of these two sentences are, so I simply omitted them, but perhaps you could assume an understood "would" auxiliary in each sentence ("would" is tensed).

So after combining the complementizers with the Ss, we get:
for you to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks
for you to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify

The "for you" in both sentences is omitted -- that is, left understood. The subject of the main sentence is extraposed -- that is, it is replaced by "it" in the original subject position and the former subject is appended to the verb phrase "is better".

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  • +1 Complicated structure made very clear [my usual H&P style objections to the upstairs term NP apart]. However, are you sure that the extraposed subject is really appended to better? Isn't the basic structure really "It is better than for you to go in a direction... [for you to underestimate your abilities]" with various kinds of movements? Jan 29, 2016 at 12:38
  • I don't know what your objections to "NP" are. I didn't say that the extraposed subject was appended to better, but rather to the VP is better. Am I sure that's right? No. I recalled some discussion in TSPE of where in the structure an extraposed subject goes, but I don't remember McCawley's reasoning, and I'm not sure that is better is actually a VP. I don't understand your idea about the basic structure.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 29, 2016 at 17:01
  • [I have no real objection to NP, just that coming from an H&P type background I prefer to reserve NP for phrases headed by nouns.] What I mean is that as an extraposed subject, the first 'NP' is a Complement of BE. The second NP is actually part of the better adjective phrase. So having the extraposed subject NP appended to is better makes it sound like the exptraposed NP is part of the phrase headed by better - which it isn't, I don't think. It would seem to be an entirely separate complement of BE. Does that explain why I'm unsure? Jan 29, 2016 at 18:03
  • @Araucaria: What does "H&P" mean? I think your reasoning has been contaminated by the fundamental assumption of dependency grammar, which is that the syntactic behavior of a phrase is determined by its head. And the problem with that assumption is that it just isn't true.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 29, 2016 at 18:47
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    @Araucaria, These are not mutually exclusive possibilities. And let's keep apart what I said in my answer and what is true. You asked above whether I was sure about the structure, and I replied that I was not. I think what I said was clear, but it is not clearly correct. Neither of the two diagnostics I generally use for detecting VPs happens to be applicable in this example.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 30, 2016 at 17:52
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No, not a noun phrase, but a comparative clause functioning as complement of the preposition “than”.

It is better to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks than [to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify].

The meaning can be given as “it is x good to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks; it is y good to go in a direction that usually involves more certainty than you can justify; x > y”.

Comparative clauses are structurally reduced, in that some material is left understood that would be overtly present in comparable full main clauses. In your example, the subject “it”, verb “is” and the "y good" part are left understood, (“it” is of course a meaningless ‘dummy’ subject.)

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  • I'd been trying to work out how to get the Y-good bit into my answer, but couldn't without making it very, very long ... Jan 29, 2016 at 18:05
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The sentence

  • It is better to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks
    than to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify.

is a transform by conjunction reduction of it is in

  • It is better to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks
    than it is to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify.

This comparative construction contains than, which only occurs in comparatives.
The construction compares (favorably) one infinitive clause with deleted you subject

  • (for you) to underestimate your abilities and overestimate your risks

with a different infinitive clause, also with deleted you subject

  • (for you) to go in a direction that actually involves more uncertainty than you can justify
    (this clause itself contains a relative clause with another comparative construction
    • more uncertainty than you can justify
      That's a lot of syntax. One comparative is complex enough; two is two many.)

In this sentence, both infinitive clauses are noun phrases, and the comparative just weighs them.

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