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I have recently been asked about the grammatical accuracy of the sentence "My mother bought the book for me to study English." This sentence is meant to convey that the writer's mother bought him/her the aforementioned book, and that the book is meant for the purpose of studying English.

It looked correct at first glance but after thinking about it for a little while I began to get a feeling that there's some ambiguity in the construction of the sentence. I'd really appreciate it if someone better versed in grammar than I am could explain to me whether or not the sentence in question is correct for the intended meaning.

Thank you in advance.

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  • The modification in the text of the question (more well-versed) was made on the basis of this ngram but don't hesitate to roll back if there appears to be no improvement. – LPH May 11 at 5:21
  • It's OK, but we would more naturally say "My mother bought me the book to help me study English" / "My mother bought me the book to help with my English studies. – BillJ May 11 at 6:57
  • The "ambiguity" is reflected in your own paraphrasing (the writer's mother bought him/her the book). Which implies the writer owns the book, but it's perfectly possible (and arguably more natural) to interpret the entire clause for me to study English as a single semantic unit specifying the purpose of the action (buying the book). In which context it's also perfectly possible the mother actually bought the book for herself - with the initial aim of using it to help this child study English, but she may fully intend to use that same book for her other children later. – FumbleFingers May 11 at 12:18
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  • My mother bought the book for me to study English

The sentence as printed is indeed ambiguous, like all written sentences. But, also like almost all written sentences, it's not ambiguous when it's spoken, since the stress and intonation are different in the different senses.

One meaning would be something like

  • My mother bought the book so that I could study English.

Here the purpose of the book is clear, and the intended student is identified as the speaker, though the end possessor of the book is not identified. Since buy is not a bitransitive verb, for me can't be an indirect object, so we are left to infer that the speaker is now the owner of the book.

On this reading, the prepositional phrase for me would get the primary stress, as befits a marked subject of a purpose clause:

  • My mother bought the book for me to study English

Another meaning might be something like

  • My mother bought me the book, to study English.

Here it's not clear who's studying English, but it is clear that the book changed possession; even though buy is not bitransitive, it can undergo Dative under certain conditions which are met here. One could infer that the speaker would be the one studying English with my new book, but that's not what it says; it's possible my mother is intending to study.

On this reading, the noun phrase the book would receive primary stress:

  • My mother bought the book for me to study English

There are also differences in the pitch accent of different words in these sentences that I can't go into in print. Suffice it to say that

  1. There is more than one meaning for this sentence,
    because there is more than one pronunciation.
  2. The meanings of this sentence, while different, are not that different;
    they can all describe the same event, for instance.

This situation is true for more than one sentence in English; in fact, it is the norm to be ambiguous,
and for the different senses to be so similar in context that we don't even notice.

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  • It's interesting that you should say that "for me" is a PP in My mother bought the book [for me to study English]. I would say that the bracketed element is an infinitival clause with""me" as subject" preceded by the subordinator "for". Still a purpose adjunct, of course. – BillJ May 12 at 7:44
  • Yes, but I'm not nearly as fussy as you about intermediate labels on epicyclic non-terminal nodes. Official POS is not an important topic in English grammar. Certainly the prepositions for and to are used as complementizers, just as prepositions are used for other jobs in other constructions. – John Lawler May 12 at 14:05
  • I think it's an important distinction, that of PP and infinitival clause. What you call a complementizer is probably what I call a subordinator, thus "for" is a subordinator functioning as a marker for to infinitivals that contain a subject. – BillJ May 12 at 15:49
  • Which I would say as: for is the first part of the for..to infinitive complementizer; it marks the subject of the infinitive clause, if it's present. The to marks the verb of the infinitive clause. Both for and to are prepositions (in the same way particles on phrasal verbs are prepositions, if it matters), but together they constitute part of the marking of infinitive clauses, which are probably the most variegated and common verbal construction type in English. I would add that for is rarely present, while to is usually present, because of the ways infinitives work. – John Lawler May 12 at 19:20
  • I take “to” as having dual classification: Prep (Ed went to London), and subordinator in infinitivals. Likewise, "for" as a prep in (This is for you), and subordinator in infinitivals containing a subject. The functions are different too: in a PP "for" functions as head, in infinitivals as a marker (your complementizer). Thus, in for [me to study English], I take "for" to be a subordinator functioning as a marker, and "to" as a subordinator functioning as a marker in the VP of the bracketed head clause. – BillJ May 13 at 11:22
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I believe this construction is quite common and therefore correct, carrying no ambiguity.

From CoGEL p.1107 § 15.48

Clauses of purpose, which are adjuncts, are more often infinitival than finite:
♦ To open the carton, pull this tab.
♦ I left early to catch the train.
♦ My publisher sent it for me to comment on (it). (a)
More explicit subordinators of purpose are in order to (formal) and so as to:
♦ They left the door open (in order) for me to hear the baby. (b)
♦ Students should take notes (so as) to make revision easier.
♦ The committee agreed to adjourn (in order) to reconsider the matter when fuller information became available.

  • My mother bought the book for me to study English.

This sentence is built on the model of "(a)" and "(b)" in the examples above, and therefore could also be written more "explicitly" as follows.

  • My mother bought the book in order for me to study English."

"For me to study English" is the infinitival clause.

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