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When one is trying to say that someone has made a decision to do (or not to do) something, is this way of using the verb "to decide" valid or correct?

At a certain point in her life she realized that no matter how hard she decided to try to quit smoking, she would never succeed (instead of just saying "no matter how hard she tried to quit smoking").

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Multiple answers claim that there is something wrong with the sentence. Very well, let us consider a sentence fragment which is analogous in terms of its grammatical structure:

no matter how deep she decided to dive

Does anyone find this sentence fragment puzzling, ungrammatical, or hard to understand? I doubt that.

It is clear that this is a perfectly grammatical sentence fragment, where "deep" relates to "dive" (not to "decided"), and therefore so is the original fragment, where "hard" relates to "try" (not to "decided").

Janus's analysis goes into the detail of why the original sentence is more difficult to parse, but the above should suffice to establish that the grammatical construction itself on its own is acceptable, although it might be more clumsy in some contexts than in others.

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  • While I agree with your main point, I don’t agree that the diving sentence is entirely analogous. It differs in the number of links in the verbal chain – precisely the factor which makes all the difference, as I hope I illustrated in my answer. I don’t perceive anything at all odd about “She decided to try hard to quit smoking”, though of course it’s less common than “She tried hard to quit smoking” (which in its turn is less common than “She tried to quite smoking”). Jul 31 at 14:18
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    @Janus Bahs Jacquet Yes, I think your long analysis is very much on point (and should be the accepted answer). My intention was mainly to contribute a simpler but immediately understandable answer debunking the idea that the construction is inherently ungrammatical. I edited my answer slightly in light of your comment.
    – Pilcrow
    Jul 31 at 15:14
  • @Robbie Goodwin It's an uncontroversial instance of the same grammatical construction, demonstrating that there is nothing in the original construction which forces "hard" to relate to "decided" rather than to "try".
    – Pilcrow
    Aug 6 at 0:37
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    You're entirely correct and I apologetically withdraw anything I said - or thought - to the contrary. Aug 6 at 17:07
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One does not normally decide hard.

One might say, how firmly she decided to. One can lightly make a decision -- say, deciding where to go for lunch, without much determination, so that glancing about the restaurants she choose another -- or firmly -- so that she doesn't even consider where else to go.

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  • I suspect you have correctly intuited OP's intended meaning. Jul 30 at 3:36
  • One can also make a hard decision, but (as you know) would use a different word order for that.
    – Davislor
    Jul 30 at 15:58
  • "Lightly decided" isn't idiomatic, as opposed to "firmly decided," which is. Maybe "casually decided." I don't know.
    – cruthers
    Jul 30 at 22:53
  • Possibly regional?
    – Mary
    Jul 30 at 23:53
  • @cruthers I don’t really find ‘lightly decided’ very idiomatic either, but we do idiomatically say that something “is not a decision to be made lightly”, so there is an idiomatic connection between deciding and the adverb lightly. I suppose in the same way that a decision can be hard, but you don’t ‘decide hard’, a decision can be made lightly, but not really ‘lightly decided’ (though it’s still much better than ‘decide hard’). Jul 31 at 9:52
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It is technically (grammatically) a correct sentence, but the meaning is very unusual. It means that she decided hard, suggesting that there are various levels of "hardness" (i.e., effort) in deciding and that she couldn't succeed at any of those levels. One would normally think that instead of deciding hard, she tried hard. Therefore, the second version of your sentence makes more sense:

At a certain point in her life she realized that no matter how hard she tried to quit smoking, she would never succeed.

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    For the record, the sentence makes perfect sense to me. I’m not sure exactly how it works on a deeper level, but the semantics make it clear that how hard must be extrapositioned from the VP (since the structure no matter how X can’t be split up). Even if the surface order of words contains ‘how hard she decided’, how hard still modifies try to me. It’s hard to paraphrase, but it means roughly, “no matter how hard the attempt to quit smoking that she had decided on was”. Jul 30 at 10:56
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    @Itamar VP is short for the linguistic term verbal phrase (that is, roughly, the sentence constituent that consists of a verb). OP means ‘original poster’ – in this case you. Jul 30 at 15:57
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    @Barmar Excellent proof that paraphrasing this really is difficult! Hard in my paraphrasing doesn’t modify decided [on], but rather the attempt to quit smoking that she had decided on – that is, it ultimately modifies attempt. In other words, she had decided to try to quit smoking, and it didn’t matter how hard (persistent, tenacious) her attempts were, she didn’t succeed. As you note, a hard decision is a thing, but no equivalent modification is possible with the verb decide (something can be hard to decide [on], but that’s not modifying the verb). Jul 30 at 16:03
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Oh, now I see it. That does make sense, but the wording is clumsy because the distance between "hard" and "try" makes this less obvious.
    – Barmar
    Jul 30 at 16:09
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    It's like "How fast do you want to go?" It's not the wanting that's fast, it's the going. Here, it's not the deciding that's hard, it's the trying. So I think you're wrong about the meaning (but the sentence does sound a bit off).
    – TonyK
    Jul 30 at 18:42
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The sentence as quoted is not entirely unproblematic. As other answers show, its structure is not immediately clear to at least some native speakers, although others find the meaning obvious. I fall in the latter group and understand exactly what the sentence means and how it’s structured, but though I don’t consider it to be ungrammatical or unclear, I don’t find it very idiomatic.

The real issue is that it tries to combine two features of English syntax in a way that strains them almost to breaking point. Those features are interrogative fronting and catenative constructions.

Interrogative fronting

In English, interrogative phrases (that is, a cluster of words beginning with a question word like what, which, how, etc.) can appear in two different locations: either in their underlying position (subject position, object position, etc.) or fronted, that is, moved to the beginning of the clause.

In main clauses, both are possible (though there is a difference in meaning); when fronting in a main clause, subject-auxiliary inversion applies. So the following are both perfectly grammatical:

She went where? / Where did she go?

In subordinate clauses, however, fronting is mandatory (* means ‘ungrammatical’):

*I know [she went where] / I know [where she went]

In “no matter how hard she decided to try to quit smoking, she would never succeed”, the main clause is “she would never succeed”, and the rest is a subordinate clause, which means that the interrogative [no matter] how hard must be fronted and put at the beginning of the clause – as indeed it is.

Catenative constructions

Many languages, including English, make it possible to string multiple verbs together like links in a ‘chain’. This is called a catenative construction (from Latin catena ‘chain’). Not all verbs allow for this sort of chaining in English; those that do are called catenative verbs.

The first verb in a catenative construction is the main verb – if the context calls for a finite verb form, it will be the first one. The rest are all in the infinitive (with or without to) or gerund form, depending on the preceding verb – each verb has its own rules.

Most catenative constructions consist of only two verbs, but it is in theory possible to keep going and going, like this:

I decided [finite] to avoid [infinitive] going [gerund] there to help [infinitive] Jim try [infinitive] to pack [infinitive] all his things.

Combining the two

When you have a catenative construction, and one of the chained verbs has a complement which is an interrogative phrase, the same rules of fronting apply:

You want to go where? / Where do you want to go?
(*I know [you want to go where]) / I know [where you want to go]

In the un-fronted example, where appears right after the verb it’s related to: go. The question asks where to go, not where to want, and the position of the interrogative makes this clear.

When fronted, however, the interrogative does not appear near either verb, so it’s inherently ambiguous which verb it belongs with. We require semantic clues to figure out what makes sense:

How fast do you want to go? ← You want [to go how fast]?
How badly do you want to go? ← You [want how badly] to go?

Clearly in the first instance, you don’t ‘want fast’, and in the second, you don’t ‘go badly’ – you ‘go fast’ and ‘want badly’, nothing else makes sense.

As mentioned, most catenative constructions are just two verbs like this, and it’s usually clear which verb the interrogative relates to. But it can become truly ambiguous if you use an interrogative that can fit either verb:

How quickly did he begin to talk?

Am I asking how quickly he began? Or how quickly he talked once he began?

When you add more verbs to the chain, such ambiguities can become even more pronounced, and that’s where things start to break down. Let’s use our previous long example and add some adverbs:

I decided to avoid going there [to voluntarily help] Jim try to pack all his things.
I decided [to stubbornly avoid] going there to help Jim try to pack all his things.

Now what happens if we turn those into a how-question with fronting? Well, the interrogative goes all the way to the front, so suddenly there’s nothing but ambiguity:

How voluntarily/stubbornly did I decide to avoid going there to help Jim try to pack all his things?

There’s just no way of knowing which verbs either of those two adverbs was intended to modify anymore: did I voluntarily or stubbornly decide, avoid, go or help – or did Jim voluntarily or stubbornly try or pack? Most of those make at least some sense, so it’s a complete guessing game.

Lacking any clear way to pinpoint a specific verb, we just sort of give up and decide that it modifies the first verb, ’cause that’s closest. If that doesn’t work, we might try with the last verb instead, which sort of ‘wraps up’ the whole chain of verbs and is usually the most semantically salient one. If there are too many verbs, though, we lose track because there’s too much to backtrack through, so this second strategy only works if the list of verbs is fairly short.

In the quote above, the first strategy works, because you can decide something both voluntarily and stubbornly; but it won’t always be the case that either strategy works, and then you can end up with sentences that become awkward or downright impossible.

Deciding hard to try hard to quit smoking hard

In your example, you have a chain of three verbs – one more than is most common, but not enough that everything becomes a hot mess like my example above. Then you have an interrogative phrase with an adverb that doesn’t really work with the first verb, works excellently with the second, and doesn’t work at all with the third: deciding hard is perhaps not impossible, but it is odd; trying hard is very normal; and quitting smoking hard is quite impossible.

So yours is an intermediate case: the two obvious strategies don’t work, but there’s only one verb left, and that’s a good fit. The structure must be this (__ denotes the trace in the underlying position; denotes index identity):

She decided [to try hard] to quit smoking → [No matter how hard]ᵢ she decided to try [__]ᵢ to quit smoking

Apparently, this divides native speakers:

  • some give up when the obvious strategies don’t work and conclude that the adverb must modify the first verb, but this doesn’t work, so the sentence doesn’t work.
  • others go one step further and try with the third, middle verb as well, and finding a match they conclude that the sentence works.

But even if we belong to the second group, having to go to such lengths to correctly place the adverb puts a strain on our cognitive skills – we’re not used to having to work that hard to parse sentences. This irks our brain, and the result is that the sentence still doesn’t feel quite right.

It works, but it’s too much hard work to get it to work, so we find it awkward.

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