1. For him to sail back is unthinkable

  2. For him sailing back is unthinkable.

Why is the second sentence considered as wrong?

Can the first sentence be paraphrased as (1) It is unthinkable that he could sail back. OR as (2) It is unthinkable for him to sail back.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jan 23, 2019 at 17:03

2 Answers 2


"For him to sail back" is a noun phrase, which can stand as the subject of "unthinkable".

"Sailing back" is also a noun phrase, which can also stand as the subject of "unthinkable"; but there is nowhere to attach "for him" to it. You could attach the subject in a different way: "his sailing back", or (less literary) "him sailing back", could stand as the subject.

As sumelic said in a comment, if "for him" is in a separate breath group (before a comma), it is not part of the syntactic structure, and works as an external modifier.

You could just about manage with "for him" afterwards: "Sailing back for him is unthinkable"; but I think most people would there treat it as a parenthetical, between commas: "Sailing back, for him, is unthinkable".

  • "a separate breath group" this commas-are-pauses thing really just went too far. IMHO the comma is needed because normally "for him" attaches to "unthinkable", at the end. The comma shows a syntactic break. This too works with "too", too. Or so I think. How do you mean "there is nowhere to attach "for him""?
    – vectory
    Jan 15, 2019 at 15:09
  • 2
    Just to note that “Sailing back for him...” carries the slight risk of being interpreted as “sailing back to get him”.
    – pbasdf
    Jan 15, 2019 at 16:31
  • Or Sailing back is unthinkable for him. Jan 15, 2019 at 17:00
  • @pbasdf: yes, that occurred to me, but I thought it was an extra complication that I didn't need to bring in.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 15, 2019 at 17:09
  • 2
    Eh? "For him to sail back" is an infinitival clause introduced by the subordinator "for". How can it possibly be an NP? "Sailing back" is a gerund-participial clause, but it is ungrammatical here with "for" which can introduce infinitivals but not gerund-participials.
    – BillJ
    Jan 15, 2019 at 18:49
  1. [For him to sail back] is unthinkable.

  2. [For him sailing back] is unthinkable.

Only 1. is grammatical.

When a to-infinitival contains a subject, it also contains the clause subordinator for which appears at the beginning of the clause, right before the subject. Thus, the subject of for him to sail back, is him.

But the subordinator for does not occur with gerund-participial clauses, and hence 2. is ungrammatical.

Your paraphrases are fine. The second is actually the extraposed version of your example 1.

Infinitivals containing a subject, like 1. are quite common:

[For you to accept blame] would be a serious mistake.

[For them to refuse you a visa] was quite outrageous.

All I want is [for us to be reunited].


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