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In a book of Alexander McCall Smith I found this phrase:

No historical novelists need apply.

Why isn't it this with a to for the infinitive?

No historical novelist need to apply?

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    It's a reference to a well-known idiom: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – michael.hor257k Jan 20 at 20:46
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    @tchrist The question is why does the author use this form. The answer is that he uses it because it's a well-known idiom. He would be well justified to use it, regardless of it being grammatical (which I am not entirely convinced of) or not. – michael.hor257k Jan 20 at 21:11
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    @tchrist I thoroughly disagree that the "to" in "need to apply" is ungrammatical. – Weather Vane Jan 20 at 21:15
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    @tchrist sorry yes I already deleted that part. But "I need to think" is perfectly good English, not "I need think". – Weather Vane Jan 20 at 21:20
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    @tchrist IMO the grammatical error is that "need" should be "needs". And note the typo in the question, "novelists" became "novelist" in the second version. Kept in the plural, "No historical novelists need to apply" is quite grammatical, but not idiomatic. – Weather Vane Jan 20 at 21:22
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It's a polite idiom used to tell them not to apply, because they are not wanted.

The phrase is often seen when a job vacancy is re-advertised after a suitable person was not found.

Previous applicants need not apply.

  • This is not an idiom. It's modal need, which means it does not take a to-infinitive. – tchrist Jan 20 at 20:57
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    @tchrist by "idiom" I mean that the phrase indicates that historical novelists are not welcome, not that it is ungrammatical. As pointed out by michael.hor257k above. – Weather Vane Jan 20 at 20:59
  • Here are similar examples of modal need: One need only apply..., One need never apply..., Need one apply...? Those are all the base form of the verb, not the one inflected for number and person which would take a to-infinitive as in One needs to apply oneself. – tchrist Jan 20 at 21:05
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    @tchrist I understand that, but the sentence "No historical novelists need to apply" posted could be taken to mean they will be considered without applying, whereas the idiomatic use "No historical novelists need apply" says they are unwelcome. Far from "need not" it means "must not". Do you know this usage? – Weather Vane Jan 20 at 21:09
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A variant is "need not apply," and as the previous poster said, it's an idiomatic expression that doesn't follow precisely the rules of English.

You should keep in mind that signs that people make are notoriously bad examples of proper English.

  • No, this is the wrong answer. It is not an idiom. The verb need is a semi-modal one, and in negative and interrogative contexts it can become a full modal: He was content knowing that he need never apply to that school. – tchrist Jan 20 at 20:57
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    +1 You are correct. It's both a regular sentence and an idiom. Generally speaking, in the specific sense of telling people to "go away" (which is a different meaning than just the words themselves), it's being used idiomatically. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jan 21 at 8:19

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