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I know that "to" can be a preposition and an adverb but what is the term for it in front of an infinitive?

  • I would call it an infinitive marker. – user178049 Apr 30 '17 at 1:37
  • Thank you, do you know of any credible online resource that can back this term up? I searched the internet and could not find anything which is why I asked the question here. – Nutkin Apr 30 '17 at 1:39
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    umm, actually don't have any. I just call it infinitive marker because it marks infinitive. I don't think its name is important, though. Sometimes we call it a subordinator when it introduces a subordinate clause. – user178049 Apr 30 '17 at 1:41
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    If you Google "infinitive marker" you will find scores of references. Other grammarians categorize this to as a "subordinator". – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 30 '17 at 1:44
  • Check to: in the "to used before the base form of a verb" section. – user3169 Apr 30 '17 at 1:45
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It is referred to in many different ways. Because a lot of people aren't sure what part of speech it is, it is often just called infinitival to. It is also sometimes referred to as the infinitival particle.

For many modern grammarians, to is a subordinator with the syntactic function of marking infinitival verb phrases as subordinate (and therefore also termed a Marker - but note that Marker is a syntactic function and not a part of speech).

Because historically infinitival to was originally a preposition, some dictionaries list it as a preposition. However, very few modern grammarians or linguists think that infinitival to is a preposition in modern English.

Other grammarians argue that to is a unique word that doesn't belong to any other part of speech. They say that it is syncategorematic.

However, the most convincing argument is that infinitival to is a non-finite (in other words tenseless) auxiliary verb. This is what has been argued by linguists such as Geoffrey K Pullum.


Note for linguistics students:

If you are a linguist, or a linguistics students, you can read a linguistics paper about why infinitival to is a non-finite auxiliary verb here. It's quite tough, but interesting.

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  • I think Levin's paper is far too heavy for ELL. The symbols alone will be a mystery to most. As I said before, many will consider the arguments therein arcane. Okay for Stack Linguistics, though, although I suspect that most people have made up their mind and moved on. – BillJ Apr 30 '17 at 18:25
  • @BillJ Noted. Is that any better? – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 1 '17 at 11:15
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It's interesting to observe that Dictionaries present different definitions, but the majority has explained it under title (label) of preposition.

Cambridge: Preposition: used before a verb to show that it is in the infinitive.

Oxford: Infinitive Marker: Used with the base form of a verb to indicate that the verb is in the infinitive.

M.Webster: Preposition: used as a function word to indicate that the following verb is an infinitive.

The A.H.: Preposition: Used before a verb to indicate the infinitive.

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The "to" that introduces infinitival clauses belongs to the category (part of speech) subordinator and its function is marker.

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    That's a very contentious answer. To is a non-finite auxiliary verb! :D – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 30 '17 at 11:16
  • @AraucariaMan Defective? :D – Man_From_India Apr 30 '17 at 12:31
  • @AraucariaMan I know that Pullum says that, but I prefer Huddleston's analysis, which is less contentious and more widely accepted. To justify it being an aux verb would be pointless and the explanation arcane. Not for ELL methinks. – BillJ Apr 30 '17 at 12:43
  • @BillJ As a teacher, I've been using that explanation for yonks - and students actually find it very useful. It stops them saying things like Yes, I want and so forth. So my thinking is that it probably makes intuitive sense as long as you haven't been thinking of it as something else all along. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 30 '17 at 13:26
  • @Man_From_India Yes, because it has no tensed forms. :D – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 30 '17 at 13:26

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