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I have made up the sentences below.

(1) The traffic is too loud to hear you. We should go to a quiet place to have a talk.

My non-native friends think "too loud to hear you" doesn't sound right. (2) below is their revision.

(2) The traffic is too loud for me to hear you. We should go to a quiet place to have a talk.

Is the first sentence in my example (1) wrong?

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  • 15
    "Wrong"? I think it would be understood. But (2) is better.
    – David K
    Apr 1 at 5:53
  • 3
    Your friends are right. :)
    – Lambie
    Apr 1 at 13:06
  • 6
    Both are correct. The first sentence would sound more natural perhaps like .. "the traffic here is too loud to hear you!!"
    – Fattie
    Apr 1 at 13:18
  • 3
    With such loud traffic, I would assume my listener would have trouble hearing too, and I would probably choose fewer (and louder) words. "Traffic is too loud to hear you" would be just fine, even just "It's too loud to hear you".
    – Lee Mosher
    Apr 1 at 18:15
  • 2
    I don’t see it here yet, so I just wanted to comment that idiomatically I’d say “I can’t hear you over the traffic” to communicate this idea.
    – adzenith
    Apr 2 at 15:52

7 Answers 7

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Sometimes, often, we interpret sentences based on assumptions about the real world.

If I said, "Mary is too loud to hear you", it would be unclear whether I mean that I cannot hear you or that Mary cannot hear you.

But "Traffic is too loud ...", well traffic doesn't hear anybody, traffic doesn't have ears, so I must mean that it is too loud for me to hear you.

In cases like the first, we can add words to clarify. "Mary is too loud for her to hear you" versus "Mary is too loud for me to hear you", for example.

In the second case, adding "for me" might enable a listener to understand the sentence a fraction of a second more quickly. But it's not strictly necessary.

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  • 7
    I have to agree. In the real world, such utterances are instantly understood. The sun is too bright to read my book. The water's too cold to swim. Apr 1 at 8:12
  • 2
    The main point here is that traffic doesn't hear anythng. +1.
    – Lambie
    Apr 1 at 13:05
  • 5
    Wait a few years until we have AI in vehicles 😞 Apr 1 at 14:33
  • 2
    @Lambie - Basil Fawlty famously thought that his car, reluctant to start, would benefit from a sound thrashing. Apr 1 at 16:12
  • 2
    As a native speaker (American) I'd even shorten it to "Traffic's too loud to hear." Apr 1 at 18:11
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English allows such infinitival clauses that seem to be missing a subject:

It's too cold to go swimming.

It's too cold to swim.

The water is too cold to go swimming.

It's too smoky to see clearly.

It's too smoky to see anything clearly.

The picture's too blurry to identify the people.

The ice is too thin to go skating

The soup is too spicy to eat.

Absent an explicit subject they're understood to mean that the action expressed by the verb is itself impossible, inadvisable, undesirable, etc, given the extreme or excessive condition in the main clause.

P.S. Compare a similar complement with rather the opposite meaning (too vs so):

The picture's so blurry to anonymize the people.

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  • I would say only your fourth example mirrors the OP's sentence -- it's the only one with an object. But for me it clinches the argument -- the OP's sentence is valid.
    – TonyK
    Apr 1 at 14:01
  • I'll add another one and toss in some lagniappe for good measure.
    – TimR
    Apr 1 at 14:05
  • There's an implied, elided, subject in all of these examples (except the last). You can insert "for me" or "for anyone".
    – Spencer
    Apr 1 at 15:48
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    @TonyK It's informal, but I don't think it sounds wrong. It answers the (implied) question Why is the picture so blurry? "The picture's so blurry [in order] to anonymize the people," but [in order] can be left out since it's an informal context. Apr 1 at 19:04
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    @TonyK What I meant was that too blurry expresses excessive degree whereas so blurry expresses (desired) degree, and the too clausal complement expresses what is not possible and the so clausal complement expresses what is achieved. I hear these sorts of constructions (i.e. the "blurry" ones) all the time but they do strike my ear as a tad marginal.
    – TimR
    Apr 1 at 20:14
2

Your first sentence is perfectly normal vernacular English. It isn't strictly 'correct', and some people would be slightly bothered by that - I would use the second sentence in, for example, a job interview, where I want to sound like I pay attention to my grammar.

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Many good answers already. To summarize the key points for you:

Sentence 1

  • is perfectly comprehensible to native English speakers
  • sounds more natural in spoken conversation (shorter in a noisy environment and leaves out unnecessary words)
  • native English speakers generally leave out unnecessary words

Sentence 2

  • sounds like non-native English speaker trying to get it right by being precise
  • in writing, maybe the second is preferrable? No, not even then in this case, as Jay explains
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The sentence is fine in informal English. It omits naming the subject doing the hearing. From a formal viewpoint, the grammar allows for the interpretation, "the traffic is too loud for the traffic to hear you". But that interpretation (1) wouldn't be taken, since the obvious implied subject is the speaker who is having trouble hearing; i.e. for me to hear you.

Furthermore, by omitting for me, the speaker makes it clear that the traffic is too loud for anyone to hear you.

The grammatical pattern is similar to the one in, "it's too dark to see", which is 100% correct. While we can say "it's too dark for me to see", not only is that unnecessary, it is also too specific, because the original sentence means that it's too dark for anyone to see, not me specifically.

There is no possible weird interpretation in "it's too dark to see", because "it's too dark" doesn't name a specific, concrete subject like "the traffic". There is just the word it serving as a grammatical subject (called the "expletive subject"). The interpretation that this expletive it is the one doing the seeing is semantically too nonsensical to be applicable; it could not be interpreted along the pattern of "he's too distracted to see".

But you can see how in the sentence, "he's too distracted to notice you", the unmistakable semantic subject doing the noticing (or failing to notice) is he. This sentence could not possibly mean "he's too distracted for me to notice you"; it makes no sense. Yet, notice that "the traffic is too loud to hear you" has exactly the same pattern as "he's too distracted to see you"; that's why some English speakers may be taken aback by it.

I think most speakers would not be taken aback by it if they heard it in the situation, in real time, uttered by someone who obviously is having trouble hearing someone else; it's only when you isolate it and analyze it that the strange interpretation ("the traffic cannot hear you") becomes more noticeable.

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As others have said, both are natural phrases you would expect to hear from a native English speaker, but they have slightly different meanings because the subject/emphasis is a little different.

Saying "The traffic is too loud to hear you" implies that the traffic is generally too loud for anybody to hear them, while "The traffic is too loud for me to hear you" leaves room for it being an issue for you specifically, but may not be for others.

It's a bit like saying "This food is too spicy" vs "This food is too spicy for me" - the first is a general statement about the dish, the second is a statement about your preferences in relation to the dish.

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In constructions that use "too [x] to [y]" the usual inference is that the subject has an attribute (x) that is preventing it from doing something (y) or having it being done to it. For example, "it is too hot to handle" means that 'it' is unable to be handled itself. So it's odd to use this construction in the way you have - it sounds like the traffic is unable to hear.

You should instead say something like:

  • I can't hear you because the traffic is too loud.

You need something like the conjunction to logically join the problem (you can't hear the other person) to the cause (the noise of the traffic).

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    Another common idiom to express the idea is "I can't hear you over the traffic, . . ." (leaving out "noise" after "traffic" because it's understood)
    – traktor
    Apr 3 at 1:23

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