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Is the following an intransitive/transitive issue or something else? I'm trying to explain why including "that" in the sentence is critical to getting the correct meaning.

  1. Select the user you want to change. (intransitive?)

  2. Select the user that you want to change. (transitive?)

The first one sounds to me like the user will change by themselves, whereas really you (as an admin) want to change the user [settings].

  • Both variants (with / without 'that') are ambiguous in exactly the same way. There is no ambiguity with the simpler sentences 'I want this to change' / 'I want to change this', where, as you argue, 'change' takes first an intransitive, then a transitive, sense. // Intransitive 'change' has semantic constraints. It sounds more appropriate to talk of a person changing (not their clothes) or the weather changing than of a TV set changing. A volitional referent is not mandatory, but there needs to be a fairly obvious potential for the referent to change in some way. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 27 '18 at 0:27
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    Does 'select the user to be changed' help ? – Nigel J Jan 27 '18 at 0:46
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    +1 for to be changed, which avoids the ambiguity. I'd possibly go farther and suggest using domain-specific terms (as you do in your final sentence) like user settings to edit, or some such. – Will Crawford Jan 27 '18 at 1:28
  • Please, don't try that. Including "that" in the sentence is not critical to getting the correct meaning. – Robbie Goodwin Feb 8 '18 at 2:31
  • It absolutely is ... without "that", the example has at least one completely different meaning to the one intended. Although yes, if you squint at it, you can make it mean that too, I suppose (though that seems impersonal enough to rule out that interpretation, generally). – Will Crawford Feb 25 '18 at 2:35
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I don't think that either putting "that" in or taking it out resolves the ambiguity one way or another. In my dialect, the subject of the "to" infinitive is ambiguous either way.

It's true that "change" can be a transitive or intransitive verb, and this seems to be the cause of the ambiguity: if it were only an intransitive verb, "the user" would have to be the subject (compare the unambiguous "select the user (that) you want to die").

As suggested in the comments, "to be changed" would also not be subject to this kind of ambiguity, as it can only be intransitive.

People have studied the syntax of infinitives in English in great detail, but unfortunately I am not familar with this topic so I can't tell you what the rules are in general.

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'Select the user to be changed' is briefer and avoids the ambiguity you raise. However, 'Select the user you want to change' is active voice, plainer language, and in a user manual the potential ambiguity is resolved by the context.

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Please, don't try that. Including "that" in the sentence is not critical to getting the correct meaning.

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