What are the differences between these two sentences?

These two guys seem to be inseparable.

These two guys seem inseparable.

I can intuitively say that the latter one is grammatically wrong. Could you please explain?

EDIT: What I think is John Lawler's and FumbleFingers' answers are worth the read. The reason why I noted that someone who wants to learn the answer of this question, accidentally misses FumbleFingers' answer.

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    I don't know how to edit the title but it should be Seem instead of Verb. This is very far from being true of every verb; seem and appear have extremely strange syntax. Feb 5, 2012 at 19:24
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    The question is about seem and not just about any verb. When Tim was five years old, he wanted to be tall. (good) When Tim was five years old, he wanted tall. (bad)
    – GEdgar
    Feb 5, 2012 at 20:20

4 Answers 4


Your intuition is incorrect. They are both grammatical. And they are identical in meaning. The only difference between these two sentences is how many syllables they have.

The cluster to be, consisting of the infinitive complementizer to, plus the predicate adjective auxiliary infinitive be, is frequently deleted after the predicate seem (or appear) before a predicate adjective, like inseparable (meaning 'very close friends'). There is no specific rule saying when to perform this deletion; it's a matter of individual choice, like many other rules in English.

The reason why to be can be deleted here is that it has no meaning, and serves merely to mark the complement clause as an infinitive (required after seem) and the predicate of the complement clause as a predicate adjective (required before inseparable). So it's dispensable.

There are lots of syntactic rules (which means "processes", btw, and not rules for "Correctness" -- think of them as grammatical apps in your brain) in English that have the effect of shortening, moving, or deleting such frequently-occurring but semantically null chunks, and otherwise make speech faster. And supposedly easier.

Easier for the speaker, anyway. They don't always make things easier for the understander, or the learner, though. Frequently you have to put all that stuff back into the sentence to make it clear.

This rule (or app) is To-be-Deletion; a similar one for a different situation is Whiz-Deletion.

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    Could you give me an example so that the cluster to be has a meaning and it is indispensable, please? The answer is nice. A little hard for me to understand everything -I am not that much familiar the terminology. Luckily, we have Wikipedia:)- but I appreciate solid and compherensive answers.
    – Baskaya
    Feb 5, 2012 at 19:53
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    The first one that comes to mind is To be, or not to be, of course. The to is required because infinitives starting sentences require a complementizer to mark subordination (remove it and see what happens). The be is required because it's the main verb and has an actual meaning -- in this case, human life and experience of existence. Feb 5, 2012 at 20:13
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    @Thorn: On a more mundane level, Greta Garbo's "I want to be alone" grammatically requires "to be". I think it's just that some verbs (such as seem, appear, look) are so close to be in meaning that we can dispense with them if we want. But I can't easily explain why with some others ("You sound sad", "You smell bad") we don't even seem to have that choice at all. Feb 5, 2012 at 21:38
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    @FumbleFingers Yes yes, After I've just checked everything again, I understand that I was a little bit dizzy yesterday :). I totally comprehend now. Thank you for helping me.
    – Baskaya
    Feb 7, 2012 at 0:45
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    @Thorn: I think it's fair to say neither John or myself are really interested in points or "fairness" here on ELU. But we are both basically lovers of language (well, only English and a bit of French in my case). And strictly speaking your exact question is fully answered by John saying "both are identical". I've really just used it as a springboard for some totally unsubstantiated theorising about related verbs. Feb 8, 2012 at 19:28

All verbs relevant to this construction mean something like "to be" anyway (i.e. - "something is [actually or possibly] in some state"). At the risk of crossing swords with the professionals, I disagree with John's assertion that "There is no specific rule saying when to [omit 'to be']".

(1) Verbs where we never use 'to be' involve more 'primitive' (limbic/visceral?) sensory perception as processed by the hindbrain. Anything perceived by touch/taste/smell/sound is virtually by definition "real", so you don't need to repeat the relationship with reality.

  • I feel happy.
  • This tastes great.
  • It smells awful.
  • You sound upset.

(2) Verbs where 'to be' is optional are those primarily alluding to sight/visual cortex. But of course, appearances can be deceptive - so maybe including to be more explicitly conveys that what we're seeing really is "real".

  • He looks [to be] annoyed. (some may dislike 'to be' here)
  • You seem [to be] clever.
  • They appear [to be] friendly. (some may prefer 'to be' here)

(3) Verbs where we always use 'to be' involve far more sophisticated mental processing, such as judgement, forward planning, etc. In these cases, the state being spoken of may be only loosely connected with "reality", so we include the auxiliary verb to strengthen that relationship.

  • I want to be alone.
  • She hopes to be married.
  • He hates to be surprised.
  • They like to be active.

That looks like a pretty clear progression to me. It's all about how strongly the verb (and possibly other aspects of the context) imply that the state being spoken of corresponds to irrefutable reality as we perceive it. I'd particularly flag up the uncertainty surrounding look, where simple "sight" leans towards (1), as opposed to appear (involving evaluation), which leans towards (3).

  • Thanks this is very nice explanation and I really like your justifications that are based on cognitive processes which I find it as a fascinating area to study :). Sorry for delayed renumeration. (I do not know this word is appropriate)
    – Baskaya
    Feb 8, 2012 at 15:05
  • I think this is the 'right answer'.
    – Baskaya
    Feb 8, 2012 at 15:19
  • @Thorn: I'm not sure "renumeration" is really a valid English word - usually it occurs as a typo for "remuneration" (payment, wages). Better words there might be reclassification, revaluation, re-evaluation, recategorisation, etc. Feb 8, 2012 at 15:37

Both sentences are fine. The first states an impression that may be contrary to fact. The second asserts a fact (which may also be open to dispute, but not to the person making the claim). Think of the first as a softer form of assertion.

  • @Fumble: Seems seems to be less definite, at least to me, than is.
    – Robusto
    Feb 5, 2012 at 23:57
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    I assume you don't mean that by writing "Seems seems to be less definite" you intended to convey less conviction than if you'd simply written "Seems seems less definite". It seems to me all it shows is that you're more casually dexterous/profligate on the keyboard than me! :) Feb 6, 2012 at 0:09

Both are correct. It's because the verb "to seem" can function like a normal verb as well as a copulative verb or copula or linking verb. Linking verbs don't describe action in any way, so they are followed by predicative adjectives or noun complements instead of objects. Other verbs, such as "to appear", "to smell", etc., also function both as copula and as normal verbs, as in the following examples:

  1. He appeared/looked dead.

  2. The flowers smelled nice.

Note that you never say "The flowers smelled nicely".

The verb "to be" is an interesting one, because it's always a linking verb. That's why "to be", in all its forms, is followed by pronouns like "I", "he", "she", and "they", instead of "me", "him", "she", and "them", in traditional, grammatical English. So "It is I", "That would be he", etc. are actually grammatical.

  • So what is the rule of thumb? If the verb doesn't describe action in any way, then they want to get adjective not adverb and using to be with them is dispensable?
    – Baskaya
    Feb 8, 2012 at 14:49
  • With linking words, yes. Feb 13, 2012 at 15:56
  • 'Be' is not always a linking verb. Look at all the usages AHDEL lists for the non-auxiliary; not all of them are copular. Aug 23, 2015 at 23:07

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