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More precisely, "to" is banned in the active form:

The headmaster makes us honor our teachers

but required in the passive (with no agent stated):

We are made to honor our teachers

I can just say it's something -- for lack of a better term -- mechanical: "to" is required to mark the infinitive in the passive voice. But then, why does "mechanics" matter in the passive voice but not in the active voice?

More puzzling is that this phenomenon seems to apply to causative make, but not to causative force:

The storm forced me to seek shelter

I was forced (by the storm) to seek shelter

Unlike make, "to" is required in the active voice of force.

Thank you.

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  • You might find this Wikipedia’s Appendix:English catenative verbs of interest, especially the section: “In the passive voice followed by a to-infinitive — Note: These verbs are not found in catenative form with a to-infinitive except in the passive voice, as they place the object between the two verbs when used actively.” Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 17:36

2 Answers 2

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The main reason for the appearance of “to” in the passive is historical and massively complicated. It is linked to the passive's need for an object, and the fact that in the causative form, the active verb is closely linked to the complement verb. I am grateful to the OED which I have used here and edited heavily.

Old English verbs had a simple infinitive that was marked by “-an” to its root. At the same time, there was a dative form of the related noun that ended in -anne, -enne. In Middle English this became “e” and then even the “e” was lost.

In appearance, there is no difference between the infinitive in ‘he proceeds to speak’ and ‘he chooses to speak’; but in the latter to speak is the equivalent of speaking or speech, and in the former it is the equivalent of to speaking or to speech. In this form, to speak, is the descendant of Old English tó specanne (the dative noun); in this sense, it is partly the representative of this and largely of Old English specan the infinitive.

The dative noun was always preceded by tó ‘to’ and indicated some sort of motion or.

Originally, to before the dative infinitive had the same meaning and use as before ordinary substantives, i.e. it expressed motion, direction, inclination, purpose, change, etc., toward the act or condition expressed by the infinitive; as in ‘he came to help (i.e. to the help of) his friends’, - ‘it tends to melt’,

in which it was hard to say in Middle English whether help and melt are verbs or nouns.

The use of the infinitive with to in place of the simple infinitive, helped by the need of some mark to distinguish the infinitive from other parts of the verb and from the cognate noun, increased rapidly during the late Old English and early Middle English period, with the result that in modern English the infinitive with to is the ordinary form, the simple infinitive surviving only in particular connections, where it is very intimately connected with the preceding verb.

To a certain extent, therefore, i.e. when the infinitive is the subject or direct object, to has lost all its meaning, and become a mere ‘sign’ or prefix of the infinitive. But after an intransitive verb, or the passive voice, to is still the preposition.

In appearance, there is no difference between the infinitive in ‘he proceeds to speak’ and ‘he chooses to speak’; but in the latter to speak is the equivalent of speaking or speech, and in the former of to speaking or to speech. In form, to speak, is the descendant of Old English tó specanne; in sense, it is partly the representative of this and largely of Old English specan.

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As Huddleston & Pullum (2002) note, with all verbs "the bare infinitival is virtually restricted to constructions where the matrix is active" (p. 1244). So this explains why "We are made honor our teachers" is incorrect without the to.

But then why can't we say "The headmaster makes us to honor our teachers," with the to present? The short answer is...there isn't a reason. Some verbs just always take bare infinitives, like notice: we can say "I noticed them leave" but not "I noticed them to leave." Such verbs generally can't be used in the passive voice at all; neither "They were noticed leave" nor "They were noticed to leave" is acceptable. What's unusual about make is that it can be used in the passive voice with the exact same meaning--but when it occurs in the passive voice, the infinitive naturally requires a to.

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    Some 500 years ago, it was OK: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 17:36
  • 1
    What about the passive usage of "notice" in "They were noticed leaving the party early"? This seems marginally[?] acceptable to me (although seen or observed would be better than noticed). Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 17:19
  • @QuackE.Duck I mean that it takes bare infinitives instead of to-infinitives; it can also take gerund-participial phrases, as in your example.
    – alphabet
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 17:36

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