I read a passage from an LSAT:

It seems likely that the earliest dinosaurs to fly did so by gliding out of trees rather than, as some scientists think, by lifting off the ground from a running start. Animals gliding from trees are able to fly with very simple wings. Such wings represent evolutionary middle stages toward developing the large wings that we associate with flying dinosaurs.

Could someone explain and parse out this weird subject "the earliest dinosaurs to fly"? Is it a reduced form?

I found this particularly bizarre when reading "flying dinosaur" at the end. It seems the test maker distinguishes between "flying dinosaur" and "dinosaur to fly".

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    'The earliest' is significant. We can use the infinitive ('to') form of a verb when discussing an occasion involving an action - the first man to walk on the moon, the second woman to win a medal, the last boy to get on the bus. Oct 30, 2021 at 9:12
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    Why did you post the same question twice on two English language sites? english.stackexchange.com/questions/577685/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2021 at 11:42
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    If you had posted on one site and not received any answer, or if the question had been closed then I doubt anyone would object if the OP posted the same or modified version on a different site. But the two Qs are identical, and posted contemporarily.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2021 at 11:45
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    What would stop me from paraphrasing BillJ's answer and posting it here?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2021 at 11:49
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    Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs! The only flying dinosaurs were the avian therapods that still grace our skies and pies.
    – tchrist
    Oct 30, 2021 at 12:29

1 Answer 1


The infinitive to fly is a complement of earliest. The infinitive has a subject dinosaurs, which is also the word modified by earliest. Note that you can use the phrase earliest to fly without the stated subject , for example,
The earliest to fly were already gone.

Your example has a superlative adjective earliest, which identifies the infinitive's subject as unique in some way. Other adjectives making something unique are first, second, only, last, next and any superlative ending in -est.

The meaning is the earliest dinosaurs that flew

This is different than flying dinosaurs. The earliest to fly are in that class, but they are unique.

This structure is discussed here, with several other examples:
stackexchange superlative+infinitive

  • I'd say that "the earliest dinosaurs to fly" is a noun phrase in which "to fly" is an infinitival relative clause modifying "dinosaurs". See my answer to the identical question here: link
    – BillJ
    Oct 30, 2021 at 12:54

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