I just ran across this sentence in an Ars Technica article:

The idea to use a marble came from a scene in the pilot, in which Holmes uses a marble to determine a building’s floor is slanted.

And it grates on my ear no end. It seemed apparent to me that the author should've written "the idea of using a marble", but, well, the line comes from a pretty well-established writer, Jennifer Ouellette. Can "the idea to do" ever be idiomatic? If so when can it take an infinitive complement?

  • 1
    Both are fine. Notice: of using versus to use. The idea to do the work today was bad.
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2021 at 18:07
  • @Lambie "Jane came up with the idea of buying iPhones in bulk and selling them online." I can't imagine "came up with the idea to buy iphones in bulk" used here.
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 18, 2021 at 18:11
  • 1
    “The idea of” is the more common construction, but “the idea to” is also used: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user 66974
    Oct 18, 2021 at 18:11
  • 1
    @user66974 Not really. With margins like that, it's conceivable that a lot of what you see in that near-flat line comes from false positives. Example: "We hate the idea, to be honest." or "We are not familiar enough with the idea to understand it." If you do a quick search on ELU and ELL, many long-time contributors have all commented on the non-idiomaticness of "the idea to". Check out Colin Fine's comment and answer here.
    – Eddie Kal
    Oct 18, 2021 at 18:17
  • Apart from comments from long-term contributors, you can find a number of usage example here to question its supposed non-idiomaticness. google.com/…
    – user 66974
    Oct 18, 2021 at 18:20

2 Answers 2


Grammaring [reformatted] gives a fairly comprehensive list of nouns which may take a to-infinitive complement:

Nouns [which may be] followed by the to-infinitive:

ability // advice // agreement // ambition // anxiety // appeal // arrangement // attempt // chance // choice // decision // demand // desire // determination // dream // eagerness // failure // goal // intention // motivation // need // offer // opportunity // order // permission // plan // preparation // promise // proposal // recommendation // refusal // reluctance // reminder // request // requirement // suggestion // tendency // way // willingness // wish

  • The ability to cooperate with others is as important as managing on our own.
  • Our decision to close the firm was a difficult one to make.
  • We were surprised at his offer to take us home.
  • As a result of his failure to pay the mortgage, his house was foreclosed.
  • She showed no willingness to help.

It will be seen that 'idea' isn't included in their list.

Neither does MyEnglishTeacher include 'idea' as one of the '37 most common noun + to-infinitive [colligations]' (a virtually identical list).

However, 'It was X's idea / her idea / ... to buy a new door' etc are unarguably idiomatic and totally acceptable.

Longman's advice is:

Don’t say ‘the idea to do something’. Say 'the idea of doing something'.

However, you can say 'it is a good idea to do something' and 'it was someone’s idea to do something'.

I'm indebted to Phil Sweet who refines Longman's crude rule of thumb in what I consider to be a very reasonable way:

I use the to-infinitive for stuff that actually happened, and the of + ing form for stuff that hasn't (as yet).

  • The idea to finish the basement and rent it out [was John's] .... [implies that] this was done.
  • The idea of finishing the basement and renting it out [seems reasonable.] ... is [more] speculative or theoretical in nature ... it's something being considered.
  • 2
    I use the to infinitive for stuff that actually happened, and the of form for stuff that hasn't (yet). The idea to finish the basement and rent it out .... means that was done. The idea of finishing the basement and renting it out ... is speculative or theoretical in nature. It's something being considered. I don't use the of form near as often as the to infinitive.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 18, 2021 at 20:05
  • Thanks, @Phil, I wasn't happy with the rather crude rule of thumb Longman gives, and I couldn't pinpoint why. I'll include what I consider to be the better usage advice you give in the answer in a couple of days unless you wish to post. Oct 19, 2021 at 10:25
  • I tried to figure out if this was consistent across the other nouns in the list, but it didn't seem to apply. Most don't take the of form at all. So it may be that it's just a way to mark different usages of idea - and some people don't like one of those usages.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 19, 2021 at 10:47
  • ... or some people haven't thought of it. Oct 19, 2021 at 11:05
  • 1
    Clearly they didn't get the complete list. Most of these are "picture nouns" -- nominalizations of verbs that take infinitives, with a few pure nouns like idea with the same semantics. Picture nouns can also take that-complements (the idea that humans descended from bats), for the same reason; they're derived from sentential complements. Oct 19, 2021 at 20:36

Sounds very strange to me (American). I can accept “had the idea to” as idiomatic when idea means thought/suggestion, but not when it means concept. “It was Mick who had the idea to use a can opener” sounds better than the sentence cited by the OP. I’d use “of getting” when idea means concept.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.