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'Practical English Usage' by Swan says:

Superlatives can be followed by an infinitive structure. The meaning is similar to an identifying relative clause (see 495).

He's the oldest athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal.

(= ... who has ever won ...)

This structure is also common with first, second, third etc, next, last and only.

Who was the first person to climb Everest without oxygen?

The next to arrive was Mrs Patterson.

She's the only scientist to have won three Nobel prizes.

Question #1: Only the last example has the perfect infinitive ("have won"). Can the other examples have the perfect infinitive as follows?

He's the oldest athlete ever to have won an Olympic gold medal.

Who was the first person to have climbed Everest without oxygen?

The next to have arrived was Mrs Patterson.

Question #2: Is the infinitive structure merely optional or obligatory?

For example, can you use V-ing instead as follows?

He's the oldest athlete ever winning an Olympic gold medal.

Who was the first person climbing Everest without oxygen?

The next arriving was Mrs Patterson.

She's the only scientist having won three Nobel prizes.

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Note: I'm from the western U.S.

Question #2: None of the examples are appropriate. the V-ing construction should not be used in this manner. The construction is used (1) for describing a present-tense but not-yet-complete situation: "Jane is winning the tennis match." and (2) for describing a past-tense conditional: "Jane was winning the tennis match(, until she stumbled)." The reason I put the condition in parenthesis is that it can be omitted, meaning that something was happening, until some unspecified condition changed that fact.

Question #1: Your first two examples sound normal to my ear. The third does not. I would say,

The next to arrive was Mrs. Patterson.

This might be a colloquialism on my part. But it doesn't sound right. I believe the reason is that we are talking about one of a series of dependent events that all happened in the past but, from the perspective of the speaker/writer, have not yet completed. Compare this to the other examples where the event being discussed has completed.

  • Thanks. How about this example, then? Mr. Manafort’s case is separate from the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any ties to the Trump campaign, though this is the first trial stemming from the investigation of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. nytimes.com/2018/08/07/us/politics/… – listeneva Apr 1 at 6:53
  • "stemming from the investigation ..." is an adjective clause modifying "trial." – JBH Apr 1 at 14:53
  • How can you differentiate Who was the first person climbing Everest without oxygen? from this is the first trial stemming from the investigation of Robert S. Mueller III? Isn't climbing Everest without oxygen an adjective clause modifying "person"? – listeneva Apr 2 at 7:30
  • As I said in my answer, "who was the first person climbing Everest without oxygen" is not grammatical ("None of the examples [for Question #2] are appropriate"). A sentence using "climbing" that's similar to the Mueller sentence is, "He was one of many climbing Everest without oxygen." – JBH Apr 2 at 15:34
  • I know examples in Question #2 are ungrammatical, and I think they show that you can't have the construction 'the + superlatives/first/second/last/only + noun + V-ing'. And the Mueller sentence seems to be an exception. Why is that? – listeneva Apr 3 at 0:21

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