She told him to break it up.

He didn't want to.

I know it means he didn't want to break it up, but how does one explain the use of to in the second sentence? I understand what's left out, and I get it re: the ellipsis—but I don't understand why to is there at all.

Couldn't one simply say He didn't want and leave it at that?

  • 1
    You are right about 'to' implying 'to break it up.' Without that word, 'He didn't want' does not start us off knowing what he didn't want. Jan 27, 2017 at 17:48
  • 1
    With transitive verbs, English prefers not to elide the entire object, but will use "it" in place of nouns or "to" in place of infinitive clauses. Compare "Is he going to bring his girlfriend?" "No he isn't going to". In some cases, omitting "to" changes the meaning, although it doesn't always.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 1, 2021 at 11:01

1 Answer 1


In a comment John Lawler wrote:

Yeah. If the infinitive is already given in the preceding sentence (to break it up), the infinitive complementizer to functions as a pro-infinitive in the next clause, and one can omit the rest of the verb phrase.

  • Pro-infinitive. 87 and counting. Mar 7, 2020 at 17:33
  • Especially: want to, like to, wish to, hate to, etc.
    – Lambie
    Nov 17, 2023 at 14:57

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