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From The Telegraph's live feed on the ruling in the Litvinenko case:

Emmerson says report findings mean Mr Putin is guilty of conspiracy to murder and should be held to account.

Is this word murder a verb, like steal in "a desire to steal"? I mean, rephrasable to "conspiracy to murder someone"?

Or is it a noun, but with no article used because it's part of a set expression in legalese? I mean, could we rephrase it as "conspiracy to a murder" or "conspiracy to commit a murder"?

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It is a verb. There's a simple test we can do, which is to see whether this word can take an Object. Verbs can take Objects, but nouns can't.

Sometimes nouns describe actions instead of things. These actions often have somebody who does the action and somebody or something that the action is done to. We normally show the person or thing that the action is done to using a preposition phrase headed by the preposition of. We can show the person or things doing the action with a preposition phrase headed by by. But we cannot try to give the noun an Object. This will be ungrammatical:

  • the release of the prisoners
  • the release of the prisoners by the government
  • *the release the prisoners (ungrammatical)

So let's see if we can find a phrase which includes the person or people being murdered:

  • The three men were convicted of conspiracy to murder people unknown.

Here we can see that the verb murder has a Direct Object, the noun phrase people unknown. Let's just check to see if maybe we could also use the noun murder here instead:

  • *The three men were convicted of conspiracy to murder of people unknown. (ungrammatical)

No, this result is very bad indeed. The word murder is definitely a verb here. This also means that the word to is part of an infinitival construction. It is not the preposition to which we see in go to the beach.

For most native speakers conspiracy to a murder would not be grammatical. However the noun conspiracy can take other infinitival clauses as Complements:

  • conspiracy to commit robbery
  • conspiracy to steal
  • conspiracy to injure
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    Thank you! I probably stumbled because in ordinary sentences the verb murder seems to always take a direct object. "I want to murder" sounds weird to me, unlike "I want to kill". – CowperKettle Jan 21 '16 at 15:45
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    @CopperKettle Yes and it also looks like the to might be the same kind of to as in incitement to hatred, for example. (Although it's not) – Araucaria Jan 21 '16 at 15:46
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I have a different opinion. The verb to murder is rarely used as an intransitive verb and almost always takes a direct object.

The big issue is whether to in "conspiracy to murder" is a preposition or to in to-infinitive. If you replace murder with theft which doesn't have a known usage as a verb, it becomes clearer.

If you Google "conspiracy to theft", you will get 83,700 hits. If you Google "conspiracy for theft", you get only 6,080 results.

Actual usage from IRS.gov:

On July 21, 2015, in Newark, New Jersey, Julio C. Concepcion, of Passaic, was sentenced to 84 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $5,643,695 in restitution. Concepcion previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to theft of government funds...

The linked game site (based in the UK) has some interesting definitions, Law & Order from Catreath.com

Conspiracy to Theft: Planning, aiding or colluding to the taking or destruction of any item that does not lawfully belong to you without permission, where the item is worth more than 5 gold pieces, or is judged to be of particular significance. Theft encompasses the poaching of game.

It also lists Conspiracy to Assault of a Noble, Conspiracy to Murder, Conspiracy to Murder of a Noble in addition to Conspiracy of Theft. As you can see all the words after the preposition to are nouns.

The reason you don't use the indefinite article a before murder is it is broadly used as a mass noun. You don't usually say one murder, two murders..., but "two counts of murder", "three counts of murder", etc. are broadly used as in:

He pleaded guilty to two (three) counts of murder.

Conspiracy to a noun is more idiomatic than conspiracy for a noun and sometimes the phrase could cause confusion if the preposition to is followed by a noun that could be used both as a noun and a verb such as murder.

  • I like the post, however, you won't find any examples (or actually you'll only find one example) on Google books. In the vernacular "conspiracy to theft"is shorthand for the longer mouthful "conspiracy to commit theft". You can compare those here Ngrams. You'll see there's no result for "conspiracy to theft" – Araucaria Jan 22 '16 at 14:24
  • Here's the Googlebooks search for conspiracy to theft and here's the one for conspiracy to commit theft. Here's the one for conspiracy to steal for comparison. So, I find that I like your post, which is well presented and well argued, but the hard evidence doesn't seem to weigh in its favour. – Araucaria Jan 22 '16 at 14:27
  • @Araucaria The word conspiracy is not broadly used for such a relatively petty thing like theft. If you replace conspiracy with attempt, you get 169,000 hits for "attempt to theft" and 406,000 results for "attempt to murder". Now, attempt is better suited with "theft" than "conspiracy". My question is "Is murder in attempt to murder a verb?" You get 31,800 hits for attempt at murder and 9,130 hits for attempt for murder. – user24743 Jan 22 '16 at 14:34
  • Hmm, I can only find 1 result on Google books for attempt to theft .... Even attempt to thieve is more common, it seems. I really liked your rogue post over on the dark side, btw :) – Araucaria Jan 22 '16 at 14:37
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    @Rathony You can never, ever trust those numbers that Google puts at the top of a "hit list" to bear any meaningful relationship to the number of actual hits Google can provide. For instance, if you track through the hits on "conspiracy to treason" you will find that there are only 202 actual hits, many of which are duplicates, and most of which refer to a single source, a book title. – StoneyB Jan 22 '16 at 17:36

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