I have found the following sentence as an example of an infinitive phrase used as an adjective, however, it seems to me that it could also be taken as an adverb of purpose.

Jane bought a radio to listen to the news.

Is there in fact an ambiguity as for the function of the infinitive phrase in this sentence?

  • 1
    It seems to me to be an adverbial phrase. 'Tis true it doesn't just qualify bought, but bought a radio - but I still think it is adverbial, and just that.
    – WS2
    Feb 22, 2016 at 23:28
  • 1
    But "Jane bought a bracelet to go with her earrings" is structurally identical (if you accept that "go with" is a verb) but the phrase is pretty clearly in a NP with "bracelet". I think Lalo is right that it is ambiguous.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 22, 2016 at 23:32
  • @ColinFine How exactly do you mean it is ambiguous? It seems to me it can only have one meaning.
    – WS2
    Feb 22, 2016 at 23:40
  • 2
    I mean that, as Lalo suggests, it is syntactically ambiguous, though in this case there is little difference in meaning. Is the thing she has bought a radio to listen to the news, or has she just bought a radio and is going to listen to the news?
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 22, 2016 at 23:44
  • A clearly ambiguous example is I have bought a dog to frighten away burglars. = I have bought a dog intended to frighten away burglars. or = I have bought a dog in order to frighten away burglars. = [In order] to frighten away burglars, I have bought a dog. Feb 23, 2016 at 0:32

1 Answer 1


Let's rephrase the example sentence to the following:

Jane bought a radio for her parents to listen to the news.

The subject who will listen to the news is her parents. The subject of the action to buy is Jane. Only humans (or animals) can listen to something. Radio can't listen to anything. Without Jane's buying a radio, her parents won't be able to listen to the news. It clearly indicates a purpose of the action and the to-infinitive was used adverbially.

The best way to tell whether to-infinitive is used adjectivally or adverbially is to insert a subject of to-infinitive with a preposition for as shown above. The above sentence could be rephrased to:

Jane bought a radio so that her parents can listen to the news.

Let's take a look at the example in the comment:

I have bought a dog to frighten away burglars.

It could be rephrased to:

I have bought a dog who (the dog) can frighten away burglars.

The action of to frighten away will be done by the dog. Not by me. I would not have bought a dog if I had been able to frighten away burglars. This is closer to an adjectival usage. This is not to say it couldn't be interpreted as an adverbial usage.

Let's compare the following two sentences:

(1) He wants somebody to love him. vs (2) He wants somebody to love.

No. (1) clearly indicates an adjectival usage: He wants somebody who will (can) love him.

However, No. (2) is not clear. It could be either "He wants somebody (that) he will (can) love." or "He wants somebody so that he can love somebody or fall in love with somebody."

As you can see, it is ambiguous and it is meaningless to identify pedantically which usage is used. However, there is a clear case for the adverbial usage.

I went to the U.S. to study English.

Nobody will say this is an adjectival usage.

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