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I'm writing a PhD dissertation in Physics in the United States. I would say I'm fluent in English, but it's not my first language. Recently, I sent a draft of my dissertation to my adviser, and there was one recurring sentence structure that he fixed every time. Here's a pretty characteristic example. I've simplified the example to reduce the number of clauses and jargon words.

A number of constraints is applied to the likelihood function. This allows to obtain pulls on the nuisance parameters.

I've emphasized the part that he corrected, in most cases to a gerund, as in "This allows obtaining".

What is special about this construction in English that precludes the use of an infinitive?

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  • Treat advisor comments with great care. "Obtaining" is better, but "This allows" is still a problem, and a common mistake. You know what it refers to (the entire previous sentence), while your reader does not know for sure what the reference is. This situation? Maybe you mean Applying constraints allows obtaining or The function allows for obtaining. Oct 27, 2020 at 4:01
  • Thanks for the comment. I'm mainly concerned with the use of gerund vs infinitive. What I'm saying is I don't understand why it should be a gerund. "This allows obtaining" sounds very odd to me.
    – SU3
    Oct 27, 2020 at 4:06
  • Allow me to explain, not allow to explain. Anyway, both forms are problematic to my native ear, but one has the advisor's blessing! You can use your version with a small correction. "This allows to obtain" becomes This allows the trial to obtain, or the physicist, or the experiment. In the advisor's format, This change allows for obtaining. Oct 27, 2020 at 4:20
  • What would you write if you wanted to first explain a method and then state what it allows you to do? And additionally, you didn't want to put both statements in one sentence (because of their length), nor state who benefits from the method, because it's anyone who uses it, or the intended audience, so it's, in either case, redundant.
    – SU3
    Oct 27, 2020 at 4:28
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2 Answers 2

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There is nothing particularly special about this construction. It is what it is.

In English, whether to use a gerund or an infinitive depends on the verb, and there does not seem to be a set rule. It just becomes a habit.

A general trend however is that gerunds are used more often than infinitives, and infinitives tend to be used to express abstract or potential ideas.

For example, you would use an infinitive for "I want to obtain" or "I need to obtain" while you would use a gerund for "I like obtaining" or "I enjoy obtaining".

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  • Huh. I didn't think of these examples, which do sound better to me with the gerunds. I must have not internalized the usage of "allow" as much as that of the verbs like "like" or "enjoy".
    – SU3
    Oct 27, 2020 at 4:15
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It sounds awkward because “allows” carries the idea of granting permission, but you haven’t specified who you are granting that permission to. Compare:

  • This allows (?) to work.
  • This allows one to work.
  • I am allowed to work.

When you change the infinitive to a participle/gerund, the sense changes subtly from ‘granting permission’ to ‘enabling a function’. It can still feel slightly awkward at times, and can be improved by going all the way to using the noun form in place of the participle. Compare:

  • This allows Fred to enter.
  • This allows (his) entering.
  • This allows entry.
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    I just found this answer, which is essentially what you are saying. The question there has an example from German. In Russian (my language) it's kind of like that, except we often don't even say who is allowed, not even with a preposition, and there are no articles.
    – SU3
    Oct 27, 2020 at 4:41
  • Would "This enables obtaining" sound odd at all in my original example? What about "enables to obtain"?
    – SU3
    Oct 27, 2020 at 4:42
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    @SU3 I think the issue is that in English, it’s more natural to use smaller (helper) words where the grammar requires something, and allow the main point to carry the heavier words. So something like “This lets us pull on the nuisance parameters” puts the focus on the pulling of nuisance parameters (or whatever the real content is), rather than on the ‘enablement‘ or the ‘allowing‘.
    – Lawrence
    Oct 27, 2020 at 8:27

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