Nouns + infinitives

Another interesting structure for learners to be aware of is that of an IP ending in a noun followed by a to-infinitive. As can be seen in the following examples, the nucleus tends to be located in the noun instead of the final verb:

(147) sound_loud_speaker I have an essay to write.

(148) sound_loud_speaker You’ve got work to do, I suppose [1].

(149) sound_loud_speaker I have a plane to catch.

(150) sound_loud_speaker I can’t get the toilet to flush.

(151) sound_loud_speaker There are children to take care of here [2].

(152) sound_loud_speaker Did he have any enemies? Someone with an old score to settle?

There are several reasons given by different authors to account for this displacement of the nucleus onto a previous noun. First of all, it is a new instance of the higher degree of accentability of nouns in relation to other lexical words in English. Secondly, it is usually claimed that all those verbs have a rather low semantic content, so they are, to some extent, inferable (essays are normally written, planes are caught, toilets are flushed, etc.). And there is a third, crucial argument, this one of a syntactic nature.

The clause

(153) sound_loud_speaker I have a plane to catch.

is an emphatic reformulation of the unmarked sentence

(154) sound_loud_speaker I have to catch a plane.

So there is a syntactic movement whereby the object is placed before the verb, in a marked position. The outcome is that both (153) and (154) accent the same word.

The conclusion to be drawn from this reasoning is that, in the structure noun + to-infinitive, the nucleus goes on the noun as long as the noun is the object of the verb, but not otherwise. Let’s see the same construction in this other set of examples.

(155) sound_loud_speaker I think it’s time to leave.

(156) sound_loud_speaker This will be their last chance to succeed.

(157) sound_loud_speaker His determination to resist.

(158) sound_loud_speaker He didn’t show the slightest inclination to help.

Neither time, nor chance, determination or help are objects in the above sentences, so they don’t bear the accent, which goes on the last lexical word.

The difference between the two structures can be seen in two sentences which, but for just one word, would be exactly the same.

(159) sound_loud_speaker That’s a dangerous lorry to overtake.

(160) sound_loud_speaker That’s a dangerous place to overtake.

In (159) he noun lorry is the object of the verb overtake, whereas in (160) the verb overtake is the complement of the noun place.

Ortiz-Lira (2000) provides a famous pair of examples by Newman [3] where the accent changes the meaning of the utterance.

(161) sound_loud_speaker I have instructions to leave (= I have to leave instructions).

(162) sound_loud_speaker I have instructions to leave (= I have been instructed to leave).

The displacement of the nucleus can be seen in the following examples taken from real life.


(163) I have my reputation to think of (Kelsey Grammer; Virgin Islands, US).


(164) He couldn’t get his hands off me. / But I held firm. / I said, / Cedric, / I have my reputation to uphold. / It’s marriage or nothing (Celia Imrie; Guilford, Surrey, UK).


(165) The major has a train to catch (Alec Guinness; Midhurst, West Sussex, UK).


(166) We have no time to lose (Chico Marx; New York, US).


[1] See also sentence adverbials.

[2] See also place adverbials.

[3] Newman, S. (1946). On the stress system of English.


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