You know, for example, if you are a native English speaker, that I can utter (23), and that this corresponds to a sentence of English, whereas if I utter (24), although you might be able to glean some message from it, it simply doesn’t correspond to any sentence of English:

(23) Anson is incredibly difficult to please.

(24) *Anson is incredibly difficult to be pleased.

How do you know this? Are you able to articulate why (24) is unacceptable? In fact, it’s just not obvious why (24) should be so bad. The kind of knowledge of language which allows you to make this judgement is not accessible to you — the technical term for this is that it is tacit knowledge

From the preface of Adger's Core Syntax: a minimalist approach.

What sort of "articulation" is Adger asking for here? Is it possible, rather than difficult, to articulate an answer, without saying the same as we would having studied English grammar?

I'm a native English speaker, and never taught or studied grammar, but want to suggest that the fragment "to be" is wrong there (CF 'Anson wants to be pleased' and 'it is incredibly dificult to be pleased') because the sentence says that Anson both is and isn't who does the pleasing.

That we have to say that it is difficult for Anson to be pleased, if we need to predicate the ambiguity of 'to be' on a person, rather than what they "want" or that "it is" so.

I'm not saying I'm sure I'm right, that "to be" is an ambiguous fragment which cannot be predciated of agents without mediation. But I wondered, how close that is to the actual grammatical answer. And more generally, what sort of explicit udnerstanding do native speakers have of their language's grammar?

closed as primarily opinion-based by anongoodnurse, Cascabel, user66974, Glorfindel, Mari-Lou A Mar 25 '17 at 21:10

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Doesn't this depend on the native speaker? Not all are equal in the capability to reason, etc. Though many did not study grammar, many did; while not all grammar is taught "correctly" (pre- vs descriptive), some of it is. See how opinion based this is? Ask a linguist. They are best equipped to opine with some degree of truth. – anongoodnurse Mar 23 '17 at 0:55
  • It simply sounds wrong. – Hot Licks Mar 23 '17 at 0:59

This question took up a good part of my evening, but in the end I think you are right in saying that using 'to be' would be wrong because it creates ambiguity between the doer and the receiver of the action.

In (23), the sentence implies that to please Anson would be difficult, and there is a clear connection between 'please' and 'difficult' - it is difficult to please. This is absent in (24) - by itself, 'to be pleased' is a valid part of the sentence, but that leaves 'Anson is difficult', which does not make sense, and the connection between 'difficult' and 'pleased' is not there.

Just like you, I haven't taught or studied Grammar in detail, these are just the thoughts running in me.


"To please" him would require the action/existence of a second agent or circumstance.

"To be pleased" implies that Anson exists in a state of pleasure (is pleased) entirely under his own power - not with the assistance of an external agent. For that reason the second sentence doesn't read well and the sentences mean different things.

To the question of "what sort of explicit understanding do native speakers have of their language's grammar?"... that's a subject for a whole thesis. I suspect that while many native readers would know that the second sentence was uncomfortable to read (and, given the option, would most likely choose the first) only a small proportion would be able to tell you exactly why.

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