We need him to accomplish this task.

Is this an ambiguous sentence?

I think the possible interpretations are:

1: We can't accomplish this task without him/We need him in order to accomplish this task.

2.Him is the understood subject of the infinitive clause, meaning that "he is the one who should accomplish the task"

Which one is correct , or two options are both possible?

2 Answers 2


We need him to accomplish this task.

"Need" could have the sense of "want", in which case it's a catenative verb, taking the infinitival "to accomplish this task" as its catenative complement. "Him" is then the semantic (understood) subject of the infinitival clause, and the syntactic object of "need". "Him" is called a 'raised' object because the verb it relates to syntactically is higher in the constituent structure than the one it relates to semantically.

Alternatively, the infinitival clause could be a purpose adjunct, cf. We need him (in order) to accomplish the task. In this interpretation, the matrix subject "we" is antecedent for the missing subject of the infinitival.

  • Thanks for the answer, but what does "the matrix object "him" is antecedent for the missing subject of the infinitival." mean?
    – Fionna
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:14
  • @Fionna Like most non-finite clauses, the infinitival clause here has no overt subject. But the understood subject can be found be looking at the matrix clause, i.e. the clause that contains the infinitival clause. It's clear that the missing subject is "him", since we needed "him" and it's "him" who is to accomplish the task.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:29
  • Thanks again ,but why can't "We" be the missing subject of the infinitival ? I thought it's "we" who accomplish this task, and we can't accomplish it without him.
    – Fionna
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:37
  • @Fionna I was referring to the catenative interpretation where it's him that we want to accomplish the task. In the purpose adjunct interpretation, the antecedent of the missing subject is the subject of the matrix clause, i.e. "we".
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 15:42

You are correct, this is ambiguous. In spoken English, it would be clear from tone and emphasis. In written English, you have to work out which it is from context; a competent writer will have made sure that it's clear.

  • @Rompey: Oh, nothing that crude. It's made clear in other sentences. Such as "There aren't many people who can do this, and most of them are too busy. We need him to do this." That's actually not great writing in other ways, but I'm in a rush so not pushing for poetry.
    – SamBC
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 14:05
  • Thank you for the answer, English can sometimes be really confusing :(
    – Fionna
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 10:51
  • Most languages can be... I think we don't always notice the ambiguity in our native languages because we're just used to it. I don't know how French speakers get along with just one word for "price" and "prize", or "win" and "earn".
    – SamBC
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 10:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .