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  • A girl should be like a butterfly. Pretty to see, hard to catch.

I want to know how this could be?

-Pretty to see (someone) or to be see (by someone), or hard to be caught instead of hard to catch.

I think "pretty to be seen" and "hard to be caught" are more grammatical.

Because if we said that is pretty to see, that would mean if she is not beautiful, or ugly, she would not be able to see.

  • See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tough_movement. 'Pretty' contruction is a lil bit different; it's explained there. – user178049 Aug 31 '17 at 11:28
  • Thank you. But i want to know how could you have solution to each problem such as this one? Do you have any good references to read about this case? @user178049 – Stevan Slewa Aug 31 '17 at 11:40
  • I'm writing an answer. Huddleston and Pullum (2002)called this a hollow clause. There's also a brief explanation in A Student Introduction to English Grammar, written by the same authors. – user178049 Aug 31 '17 at 11:43
  • Related question: ell.stackexchange.com/q/140604 – ColleenV Aug 31 '17 at 12:32
  • You have to understand: Some proverbs are written to be more catchy than grammatical. – J.R. Aug 31 '17 at 14:06
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  • Pretty to see
  • Hard to catch

In modern grammar, these are called hollow non-finite clauses. These non-finite clauses have a non-subject gap (i.e. a missing constituent) that's recoverable from the context. The gap usually corresponds the subject in the main clause. Herein, gaps are marked with strikethrough.

Pretty to see a butterfly

Hard to catch a butterfly

These hollow clauses are licensed by the adjectives, which are—in this particular context—pretty and hard.

The latter is commonly analyzed as a tough construction¹ because it's 'licensed' by tough adjectives (e.g. hard, easy, difficult).


¹ Biber et al. in Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English analyze it as an object-to-subject raising.

  • Why catch is different from pretty? – Stevan Slewa Aug 31 '17 at 12:24
  • Look at this example: he was eager to leave. What about this? – Stevan Slewa Aug 31 '17 at 12:25
  • @StevanSlewa 'eager' is not a tough adjective; it's a control adjective. I don't understand the first sentence. Why are you comparing the verb and the adjective? – user178049 Aug 31 '17 at 12:53
  • @Stevan Slewa: You may be getting misled by the difference between see / look at as much as any difference between catch and pretty. Consider Pretty to look at, expensive to break, which would be perfectly "natural" as a sign in a china shop, for example. – FumbleFingers Aug 31 '17 at 13:11
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That construction, pretty to see is like "tasty to eat" or "nice to hear" or "good to know".

The stew is tasty to eat.

That music is pleasant to hear.

The stew isn't eating and the music isn't hearing. Rather the stew is eaten and the music is heard.

You can identify such constructions by the absence of the perceiver, who is present only indirectly by way of the adjective: things are tasty to someone. Music is pleasant to someone.

In a sense, the adjective in tandem with the non-finite verb acts as a proxy for an abstract perceiver.

That makes such constructions a cousin to the passive.

It is to die for.

  • This answer is helpful to understand. – J.R. Aug 31 '17 at 14:08
  • A good explanation, But what about your last example "it is to die for" I don't understand it. Do you mean such "it is difficult to someone to die for money"? @Tᴚoɯɐuo – Stevan Slewa Aug 31 '17 at 14:39
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    @Stevan Slewa : It is a colloquial hyperbole that means something is so delicious or wonderful, or a person is so attractive, that death would not be too great a price to have it, him, or her. The chocolate cheesecake is to die for. or She thought her roommate's boyfriend was to die for. That Tesla coupe was to die for. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 31 '17 at 15:30
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Think about the following expression:

easy to use

Nobody will ever say "easy to be used" even if it is implied that it's ment to be used by somebody. English is a language that tends to simplify. It's not like ancient Greek where every little detail is reflected on the language itself. Don't try to reason too much about every English expression 'cause sooner than later you will find yourself in trouble with idiomatic expressions and other quirks.

Also because the context of the above sentence is quite poetic, you should expect the author to take some artistic licenses to enhance the dramatic effect of his sentences.

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