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[i] She was the only one to talk to him. (Tr = Tm)
[ii] She was looking for someone to talk to. (Tr > Tm) * Tr:Time referred to, Tm: matrix time

Temporal location is closely bound up with modality: the infinitival commonly conveys non-actuality, which tends to be associated with posteriority. The temporal difference between [i] and [ii] thus correlates with the difference in modality: in [i] the talking is actual, whereas in [ii] it is potential.
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p162)

I.
I guess the book says only has the modality in [i], by which to infinitival has the meaning of actuality. I can get what it says, but wonder if to talk can be replaced by talking in [i] without semantic change.

II.
In [i], does the word, only, permits just the actual meaning and not the potential one? If this is yes, what about the example below? (a)’s to infinitival must be an actuality. But what about (b)? Its to-infinitival seems like potentiality with only in the sentence. In this case, left seems to make the sense. Is this right?

(a) They were the only people to survive the crash.
(b) The only thing left for us to do is wait. (Merriam-Webster’s)

  • 1
    They're pretty much the same, except that the only one to talk with him is implicitly perfective (equivalent to the only one who talked to him), while talking is explicitly imperfective (equivalent to the only one who was talking with him), so you would use them slightly differently. For instance, you could say She was the only one talking to him when I entered, but not *She was the only one to talk to him when I entered. To talk requires a timespan during which the action (or non-action!) is "completed", but talking can be used with a point in time. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 2 '13 at 21:28
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    Beyond that, I find CGEL's statement dubious; I see no difference in "temporal location" between She was looking for someone to talk to and She found someone to talk to; both "talkings" take place after the action of looking/finding, so the difference in modality is lexically conditioned, not temporally. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 2 '13 at 21:38
  • @StoneyB, The temporal location sounds to be about Tr and Tm that I’ve missed. And I get another curiosity after reading Merriam-Webster’s examples. I’d like to add them below OP. – Listenever Nov 3 '13 at 0:15
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Fascinating questions.

I
The only one to talk with him is implicitly perfective (equivalent to the only one who did, in the event, talk to him), but talking is explicitly imperfective (equivalent to the only one who was talking with him), so they are not equivalent.

II
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that A) these infinitives are all modal, and B) the conversion of [i] and (a) from potentiality to actuality is not entailed by the construction but inferred from the past reference. The term only and, as you discern, reinforces this inference.

  • A) The underlying sense of this sort of infinitive is a task or possibility which lies before one:

    I still have Bob to talk to.
    I am to talk to Bob tomorrow.
    Bob is the man to talk to about that.

    Consequently, when CGEL says

    “The infinitival commonly conveys non-actuality, which tends to be associated with posteriority.”

    I think they have it backward: in this idiom the infinitive conveys prospectivity, which is inherently non-actual.

  • B1) Let’s bracket out the past references (setting RT=ST—I think, but I'm not sure, that this would be CGEL’s To = Tm) and look at the situation from the viewpoint of the beginning of RT:

    Everyone present has him to talk to. Who will actually talk to him?
    She has everyone present to talk to. To whom will she actually talk?
    Everyone in the airplane has a crash to survive. Who will actually survive it?
    We have many things to do. Which will we actually do?

    In all your sentences the infinitive designates something which at RT lies in front of the agent as a possible action: ET>RT. It is only retrospectively, from ST>ET, that the question can be answered, and the possibility converted into an actuality. Note that all of these can be backshifted with would acting as the past tense of will and bear senses in the same ballpark as the original (I add the actually to distinguish epistemic would from volitive):

    She was the only one who would (actually) talk to him.
    She was looking for someone she would (actually) talk to.
    They were the only ones who would (actually) survive.
    There was only one thing we would (actually) do.

    The term only does reinforce these past-referent readings; it implies a partition, “one of many”, and we infer that that partition distinguishes the realized possibilities from the unrealized ones. But in the present tense only does not imply actuality.

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As others have done the heavy lifting on this one, I shall confine myself to your last question:

In this case, left seems to make the sense. Is this right?

I suggest that "left" makes absolutely no difference to the "sense" of the sentence, in regard to actuality VS potentiality. "The only thing to do was wait" Is the same as "The only thing left to do was wait", except that the latter hints at the possibility that other things (besides waiting) might have already been tried.

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