To, or Not To

I have been musing on the innocuous looking little word <to>, not the preposition as in I’m going to Scotland, but the infinitive particle as in I want to eat that cake. This train of thought was prompted by a question from my friend JDL — a question I couldn’t answer — but I’ll return to that later.

Consider the skeleton dialogue:

A: Why did(n’t) you Y?
B: Because I Xed to Y.

where both X and Y are verbs. It is highly likely that Y will be deleted in B’s response. However, some X verbs require the word to to remain and others don’t. So, for example, A: Why did you eat it? B: Because I wanted to. Leaving out the to results in a distinctly odd-sounding utterance. However, if A says: Why didn’t you eat that cake? and B replies: Because I forgot to, leaving out the to is fine.

Why? It seems to me that this is a bit of a minefield for non-native learners of English. Furthermore, there are some horrible verbs like suggest, which don’t allow a TO + VERB complement. I suggest to go now is an example of a fairly frequent non-native learner error.

Back to JDL’s question. It is: are there any other languages like English which allow the construction exemplified by I wanted to?

11 thoughts on “To, or Not To

  1. This is what happens in Spanish:
    – “Porque quise hacerlo” [poɾke ˈkise aˈθeɾlo], literally = Because I wanted to do it.
    -“Porque quise” [poɾke ˈkise], literally = Because I wanted.
    BUT
    -“Porque olvidé hacerlo” [poɾke olβiˈðe aˈθeɾlo], literally = Because I forgot to do it.
    -“Porque lo olvidé” = Because I forgot it.
    The expression “Porque olvidé” (= Because I forgot) would sound un-Spanish.

  2. Emilio,

    Many thanks for that. It seems that there is a minefield for learners of Spanish too, but a different one from that in English.

  3. John, what d’you mean by ‘odd-sounding’ – syntactically odd or pragmatically odd? In my humble opinion B’s reply to the non-negative interrogative utterance is okay, but pragmatically it’s a snippy reply.

  4. Petr, are you saying that “Because I wanted to” is OK but pragmatically snippy, or that “Because I wanted” is — ditto — ? John’s reference to “a distinctly odd-sounding utterance” appears to me to refer to “Because I wanted”, which I definitely cannot class as “OK” within accepted British idiom.

  5. Petr, Philip,

    Yes, the “distinctly odd” referred to the reply: because I wanted. Maybe I should have said “wrong”, because wrong it is.

  6. Oh for the days of Bishop Lowth /et seq/, when an utterance could confidently be classified as “wrong”, with little or no chance of rebuttal. We have moved from proscriptive to prescriptive to descriptive, and these days I fear that no utterance can be classified as “wrong” without at least one modern descriptivist rushing to defend it as a valid example of “English as she is spoke” ☹

  7. Interesting issue!

    Now (Petr, correct me if I’m wrong), German usually demands “das” or “es”, similar to Spanish “lo”, which may be dropped colloquially if it’s at the beginning of a phrase: “(Das) hab(e) ich vergessen.”

    But modal verb can go without “das” in certain circumstances, which gives us the opposite of the English usage here:

    Because I wanted to – Weil ich (es) wollte.
    Because I forgot (to) Weil ich es vergessen hatte.

    (Of course, with an actual modal verb in English, there wouldn’t be a “to” in the first place.)

  8. 1.) A: Warum hast Du den Kuchen gegessen? – B: Weil ich (es) wollte.
    2.) A: Warum hast Du den Kuchen nicht gegessen? – B: Weil ich es/ihn vergessen hatte.

    The ‘es’ is optional for me, but my wife insists on deleting the ‘es’.

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