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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?

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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".

  • +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? – Araucaria Jan 29 '16 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 '16 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? – Araucaria Jan 29 '16 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 '16 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 '16 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.)

  • 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 ... – Araucaria Jan 29 '16 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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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.

This sentence uses a special structure called an extraposition. We don't generally like to use infinitival clauses as Subjects because they are hard for our listeners to process:

  • [To do the right thing] is hard.

Instead we use a dummy pronoun, the word it, as a Subject, and move ('extrapose') the old subject to the end of the clause:

  • It is hard [to do the right thing].

This sentence means the same thing as the one further above.

The Original Poster's sentence also uses an extraposition. It means:

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

The syntactic function of the second infinitival clause here is Complement of the preposition than. Remember that by 'syntactic function' we are talking about jobs like Subject, Object, Complement and so forth. The preposition phrase than to go ... certainty is itself the Complement of the adjective better.

In terms of what type of phrase/clause it is, it is a comparative clause, as opposed to a content clause or relative clause. This means that it contains gaps and reductions from which the listener subconsciously reconstructs the full meaning of the clause. For example, this clause has an ellipsis at the end:

  • [X] is better than [Y ______ ].

We can reconstruct that ellipsis roughly like this:

  • [X] is better than [Y is good].

Here better obviously means more good, so it may help to think of it like this:

  • [X] is more good than [Y is good].

Conclusion

The clause to go in a direction ... justify is a comparative clause functioning as Complement of the preposition than.


Grammar note:

Because this clause is the Complement of a preposition, some grammars call it an NP. However, this does not really tell you what kind of chunk of words it is. It just tells you what syntactic function that chunk of words might be doing in the sentence (i.e. it is just saying it is doing one of those jobs often done by phrases headed by nouns). For example, calling it an NP will not tell you that this chunk of words has obligatory gaps in it.

  • How does calling "to go ..." the complement of a preposition tell you that "this chunk of words has obligatory gaps in it"? Does "than ..." share any syntactic behavior at all with real prepositional phrases? *"Than what is your analysis better?" – Greg Lee Jan 29 '16 at 19:05
  • @GregLee Of course it doesn't! How on earth would saying what it's grammatical relations were tell you about whether it had gaps in it? – Araucaria Jan 29 '16 at 23:06
  • Was the "Grammar note" written by you? Don't you criticize "calling it an NP" because that "will not tell you that this chunk of words has obligatory gaps"? Is this not meant to imply that what you call it does not have this problem, so that it must somehow convey this information? Am I losing my reasoning power? – Greg Lee Jan 30 '16 at 0:05
  • @GregLee So in the kind of grammar I was referring to, the label for what kind of chunk it is would be NP, as I understand it. The label for the grammatical relation would be Complement of a preposition, or Object of a preposition. In the kind of analysis that I favour, the label for the type of chunk is comparative clause. The grammatical relation is Complement of a preposition. The label for the chunk tells you that it has gaps. [Under the NP system the label NP just tells you it's a Subject, Object or Complement of a preposition anyway, doesn't it?] – Araucaria Jan 30 '16 at 10:57
  • @GregLee My grammar comment was more to explain why this analysis doesn't use the NP label that the OP used. It is more an explanation of why I favour this type of description than an attack on the other. I believe in a pluralist community. – Araucaria Jan 30 '16 at 11:11

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