An easy trick 'to save you time'. [name of construction?]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by OneStroke, Jan 18, 2012.

  1. OneStroke Senior Member

    Hong Kong, China
    Chinese - Cantonese (HK)
    A recent tip from the Get-It-Done Guy ( has the following description below the header of the podcast's homepage: An easy trick to save you time. My first impression was that it was an adverbial of purpose; however, as it is preceded by a noun phrase rather than an independent clause, that is impossible. I don't think it is serving as an adjective modifying the noun phrase because as the non-finite clause already has objects (the indirect 'you' and the direct 'time'); therefore, it doesn't make sense to say 'Save you time an easy trick', unlike 'something to do', where 'do something' is possible. I think I've seen this construction before, and, without thinking, assumed it was an adverbial of purpose. What is this construction? Is there a name for it, and in what situations is it used?

    I've tried searching the forums for this construction, but didn't succeed. Perhaps there is already a preceding thread about the matter, but I could not find it because of the variety of possible titles. Please point me to the existing thread should this be the case.

  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    In 'something to do', the antecedent noun phrase 'something' is effectively the object of the infinitive relative clause 'to do'. In your example, 'an easy trick' is effectively the subject of the infinitive relative clause 'to save you time'. Other examples of such subject antecedents:

    a chairman to lead the discussions
    a stick to stir paint
    the way to untangle the mess

    Semantically, it is something like a purpose. The stick example can be said as 'a stick to stir paint with', where the stick is now object of the purpose preposition 'with'; and 'way' can be used in an adjunct without a preposition ('you untangle the mess this way'). So for that reason I added the chairman example, where it is clearly more like a subject.
  3. OneStroke Senior Member

    Hong Kong, China
    Chinese - Cantonese (HK)
    Thanks, is this an ellipsis of the preposition then? (I meant the stick example.)

    Also, is there a name for this kind of construction? (The ones where the noun phrase is the subject, I mean.)
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2012
  4. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    I'm not sure if ellipsis is the right analysis. These examples of mine differ in whether they allow the antecedent to be the subject of a main clause:

    :tick:The chairman leads the discussions.
    :( This stick stirs paint.
    :cross:This way untangles the mess.

    Other instruments may allow both subject and prepositional roles more easily, and then it looks like different structures rather than simply ellipsis:

    an undercoat to protect the woodwork: The undercoat protects the woodwork.
    an undercoat to protect the woodwork with: We protect the woodwork with an undercoat.

    As for names, I don't have any particular name for this, but then I also don't have a name for it when the antecedent is object of verb or preposition. Its syntactic function is relative clause, its internal structure is infinitive clause relativized on one or another position (subject, object etc.), and its semantic function is . . . well, if we had more examples we might do better than 'purpose'; there might be several functions.
  5. OneStroke Senior Member

    Hong Kong, China
    Chinese - Cantonese (HK)
    That ellipsis thing must be another one of my weird, nonsensical thoughts again... Sorry. :eek:

    Also, I've always thought relative clauses refers to clauses with relative pronouns or the zero relative pronoun (followed by a phrase where the verb is indicative:)), and not a non-finite clause like this. Am I misunderstanding the meaning of relative clauses? Is there a definition for the relative clause? I know I'm asking a lot of questions, but I'm really inquisitive. :p Thanks.
  6. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    I don't quite like calling them relative clauses myself. There are so many differences from the more familiar finite (indicative) kind. But we do get a non-finite verb used with relative pronouns, under some circumstances: 'a stick with which to stir paint', when it's object of preposition, but not subject or object of verb: :cross:'a chairman (for) who(m) to lead the discussions' ['for' marking subject of infinitive]. And the two participles can be used in non-integrated relative clauses, such as 'doing which' and 'having done which'.
  7. Pertinax

    Pertinax Senior Member

    Queensland, Aust
    The construction is referred to in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language as an "infinitival relative clause": as etb explains so well, it is a to-infinitival clause which functions grammatically as a relative clause.

    Where the relativized element is subject it may have either a modal meaning (the obvious chairman to lead discussions) or a non-modal meaning (the previous chairman to lead discussions), but in other roles it normally has a modal meaning (a brush to paint with). In a few cases it can be analysed alternatively as a purpose-adjunct: He got a book to read at home.
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2012
  8. OneStroke Senior Member

    Hong Kong, China
    Chinese - Cantonese (HK)
    Thanks! I think my curiosity has been quenched (at least temporarily).

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