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Reply to "to infinitive as a subject"

@apple posted:

 I know all the three sentences below are grammatically correct, but sentence 3 sounds a bit awkward to me. Is it only me that feels this way?

  1. Speaking English is not difficult.
  2. It’s not difficult to speak English.
  3. To speak English is not difficult.

 When an infinitive is used as a subject of a sentence, it almost always sounds a bit unnatural to me.

Hello, Apple—You're not alone. Most native speakers feel that way, too, even those who have never studied English grammar and would not know the meaning of "using an infinitive as a subject."

Nominal -ing clauses like "Speaking English" ("gerunds," as most ESL teachers mistakenly call them) tend instinctively to be preferred in that position by native speakers.

"That"-clauses are also unusual in subject position: "That it is already Wednesday is remarkable." Here, too, we naturally use "it"-extraposition instead: "It is remarkable that it is already Wednesday."

@apple posted:
To watch baseball games is fun.(unnatural)

Watching baseball games is fun. It's fun to watch baseball games.(better)


@apple posted:
The only example that sounds natural to me is “To err is human, to forgive divine” by Pope, because I suppose it’s like a proverb.

Is it common to use an infinitive as a subject? I don’t think so, but if so, could someone give me some examples that sound natural?

One special circumstance in which to use an infinitive as a subjects is common (ahem, in which it is common to use an infinitive as a subject) is when the infinitival clause is followed by a copula and another infinitival. From COCA:

  • "To love is to suffer."
  • "To write is to engage the world in new terms."
  • "To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for."
  • "To be is to be perceived."
  • "To be healthy is to be beautiful."

Another famous instance I have noticed is in A.A.'s famous Ninth Step, penned by founder Bill Wilson in the 1930s: "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

What's interesting about that example, apart from infinitival's appearing as the subject of a dependent clause ("except when . . ."), is that it is short, it uses the pro-form "do so," and it has a long predicate. I'm glad it isn't this instead:

  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when it would injure them or others to do so.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others.

The moral of the story is that, although it is generally true that to use an infinitival as subject is awkward (ahem, that using an infinitival as subject is awkward), it is not always so. Sometimes it works quite well.

Last edited by David, Moderator