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I'm proofreading an academic text, and I came across

'It is urgent to develop new theories for...'

Intuitively this use of 'urgent' seems non-standard to me, and while I've resolved (or I suppose avoided) the issue by offering the synonym 'imperative', it got me thinking about the uses of adjectives. To me,

?'it is urgent to develop...'; ?'it is pressing to develop...'

*'it is blue to develop...'; *'it is happy to develop...'

while

'it is important to develop...'; 'it is madness to develop...'

seem fine. Which, given that 'madness' is a noun, intrigues me. The adjectives in

'it is an urgent matter'; 'it is an important matter'; 'it is a pressing matter'

seem to behaving in the same way as each other. I don't think the variance in my first set of examples is to do with expletive pronouns ('it is raining'-> what is raining?/'it is important to develop...' -> what is important to develop...?) because 'is important to develop' is treated as a whole unit as far as 'it' is concerned, so the adjective distinction doesn't come into play. But maybe I'm wrong there?

My other guess is that it's about adjectives that allow/don't allow linking to an infinitival phrase. I haven't been able to form a coherent distinction between adjectives that do link, and those that don't - I've failed to find anything online that seems relevant about adjectival classes, but maybe someone here knows? Is some sort of adverbial conversion going on? Or are my intuitions out of whack, and do 'urgent' and 'pressing' behave just the same as 'important' in this context?

Maybe I'm overlooking something obvious...any help greatly appreciated.

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    Good points. (1) I know you have to be careful not to alter too much as well as preserve sense. But I'd say 'imperative' is above 'urgent' on the urgency scale. I'd suggest 'There is an urgent need to develop ...' (as I agree that 'urgent + to-inf' is non-standard). (2) From a broader perspective, the question about which adjectives do license a to-infinitival complement is fascinating. There does seem to be no sign of a pattern here. Examples of sentences with adjectives eager, pleased, afraid, eligible, content (and one I'm not happy with, nervous) ... Aug 3, 2020 at 13:43
  • are provided at this LinguisticsGirl article (3) 'It is madness to proceed' needs perhaps a different analysis. Aug 3, 2020 at 13:49
  • Grammaring gives a list of adjectives licensing a to-infinitive: afraid / amazed / anxious / ashamed / bound / careful / certain / content / delighted / determined / eager / eligible / fortunate / glad / happy / hesitant / liable / likely / lucky / pleased / proud / ready / reluctant / sad / shocked / sorry / surprised. The 'It is ADJ to' construction is obviously far less open to candidate adjectives. Important, vital, imperative, useful, appropriate, inappropriate, [un]wise are ones that spring to mind. Apparently good ... Aug 3, 2020 at 14:04
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    @EdwinAshworth It isn't clear to me that adjective licencing the infinitive plays a role here. I think the adjective is the last word in one constituent and the infinitive begins the second. Compare it is sad to think that believing in UFO's makes one a weirdo with It is strange that to believe in UFO's makes one a weirdo.
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 4, 2020 at 9:39
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    @Phil Brushing your teeth is important <==> It is important to brush your teeth. /// But Brushing your teeth is unimportant <==> *It is unimportant to brush your teeth. ... I think we have to consider 'It is important (etc) to Vappropriate ...' as idioms, and 'It is unimportant (etc) to ...' as blocked. I think this differs from tough-movement proper (The question was tough to solve). Aug 4, 2020 at 11:58

2 Answers 2

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It does seem that urgent is used less often than imperative here, and the comments show that some people perceive it as less idiomatic. I don't myself perceive anything wrong with urgent to. Furthermore, while Google Ngrams shows that it is used less often, it is quickly gaining currency. I believe the reason for this is that urgent to means something different than imperative to; urgent to gives a sense that it is needed immediately, which imperative to does not.

I can't think of a synonymous phrase for urgent to which is used more commonly. You could use

it is imperative to immediately develop ...

or some similar phrase, but urgent has the advantage that it is a single word. I don't really like the use of pressing (also suggested by the OP) here. While it has the same sense of immediacy as urgent, it is used much less frequently (see Ngram), and it has the disadvantage of possibly leading to a garden-path misunderstanding (Who is pressing to develop ...?).

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  • I'll rethink my choice of 'imperative to', as I can see from numerous comments and answers it does indeed lack a sense that 'urgent to' provides. Unfortunately I can't provide the full sentence for privacy reasons, but I'm going to restructure the whole thing to see if I can work in 'urgency' or 'urgent need to' (as @Edwin Ashworth suggests) instead. Interesting that 'urgent to' is gaining currency: it may well become a majority preference soon enough, given its semantic usefulness.
    – Jevere
    Aug 3, 2020 at 16:02
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    Of course, if the thing you're talking about is not actually urgent, then imperative to is much better wording. Aug 3, 2020 at 16:11
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Dictionary definitions show that the two words, "urgent' and "imperative" are different in that a matter of time is made clear in the first only, but that can be left aside.

I tend to share your intuition in finding "imperative" more idiomatic than "urgent" and that would possibly result in my avoiding the latter but I have no inkling as to what the reason is. However, a little research tells me that we both are not deceived by our intuition. There is first this ngram which shows that the "natural", the "more" collocative term is "imperative". There is of course some degree of subjectiveness in that since "urgent to" is definitely in current use. Then, a verification of both words in OALD (oxford Avanced learner's Dictionary) provides the following details for "imperative", that is two well established constructions, whereas no such constructions are included for the entry "urgent".

  • imperative (that…) It is absolutely imperative that we finish by next week.
    imperative (to do something) It is imperative to continue the treatment for at least two months.

The uneasiness must come from the fact that "urgent to" is so to speak still a construction in the making and that the reader's ears are not quite used to it yet. As to say that it is non standard English I think it might be to late or even that there never was a case for that, considering that ngram. From a quick look at the literature (Google Books) you see that this construction is used a lot albeit not nearly as much as "imperative to".

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    But urgent has a meaning that imperative doesn't here. Urgent means that we have to do it as soon as possible. The difference is not merely that one is a more idiomatic collocative term than the other; the difference is that they mean different (although related) things. You shouldn't use imperative when you mean urgent, and vice versa. Aug 3, 2020 at 14:44
  • @PeterShor You are right, I am aware of this important difference, but the felt inadequacy is not on that level, that is the semantical one, but on that of idiomaticity. I agree nonetheless that the precisions ou insist on need to be mentioned and that my last sentence make s abstraction of this difference.
    – LPH
    Aug 3, 2020 at 14:59
  • You can ask whether the difference in the Google Ngrams comes from the fact that urgent to is less idiomatic than imperative to, or from the fact that fewer things are urgent than are imperative. I don't have the answer, but I think this makes it impossible to draw any real conclusion from the Google Ngram data. Aug 3, 2020 at 15:13
  • @PeterShor It can still be deduced from it that "imperative to" has a greater impact on the readers' mind a well established form; wouldn't you say?
    – LPH
    Aug 3, 2020 at 16:17

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