There is a sentence in my english book:

Jonathan Hill mentions that it is not unusual for certain details to be difficult to obtain from family members.

My teacher says this is incorrect, it should be to be difficult to be obtained because it's not the details which obtain. However I think it's correct the way it's written, because the 'to be' applies to the structure 'difficult to obtain', not just to 'difficult'.

Is the first one correct or not?

  • 2
    Your teacher is a misguided pedant. Almost no native speakers would use such a "fussy" complex tense form in your cited context. The whole text is already on the verbose side anyway. Personally I'd probably settle for just He mentions that certain details may be difficult to obtain from family members. – FumbleFingers Jan 31 at 14:31
  • difficult to be obtained is not used in contemporary English. You can find some early 19th century attestations, and some attestations by Indian writers, but that's about it. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 31 at 21:53
  • I have to wonder how this teacher regards common phrases like "the thing to understand" and "the question to answer". – Gary Botnovcan Feb 2 at 1:24

The book's form is correct. The teacher's suggestion is complex, and at best a "pedantic" correction.

If we strip down the sentence we get

The details are difficult to obtain.

Which has exactly the same structure as (for example)

The tea is too hot to drink.

I choose this sentence as it is used as an example of correct English by englishgrammar.org. It explains that the infinitive phrase must not contain an object pronoun in this context. (too hot to drink it), and doesn't even consider the possibly correct but unnecessary "too hot to be drunk".

So the phrase in the book is good English, your teacher's suggestion is poor English.


"They are difficult to obtain.": This sentence identifies "they" as the direct object of the verb "to obtain".

"They are difficult to be obtained.": "They" is identified as the subject of the verb "to be obtained".

Both mean the same thing and are equally grammatical. Your teacher's choice is wordier, and there is nothing wrong with the way it is written in the book.

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