key to understanding / key to understand

Bilyana

Senior Member
Bulgarian
Which of these is better:

[1] This is the key to understanding the issue.
[2] This is the key to understand the issue.
 
  • HalloweenHJB

    Senior Member
    American English, Midwest USA
    To my AE ear, both are perfectly acceptable, but there is the slightest hint of difference between them: [1] places emphasis on the result of understanding (the nominal [noun] form), while [2] places emphasis on the action [verb] of understanding. envie de voyager, does that sound right to you?
     

    Æsop

    Banned
    English--American (upstate NY)
    "key" is followed by a prepositional phrase with the preosition "to," whether "key" is used literally—key to the executive washroom," "key to the garage"—or metaphorically—"key to her heart," "the citadel was the key to the defense." The object of the preposition "to" must be a noun. A verbal noun, i.e., a gerund, may serve as the object of a preposition, so "key to understanding" is a possible construction. "key" does not take an infinitive, so "key to understand" is not a correct phrase.
     

    HalloweenHJB

    Senior Member
    American English, Midwest USA
    However, the preposition "to" is often a shortened form for the phrase "in order to" and in that sense, I heard the phrase, "This is the key [in order ] to understand the issue" as acceptable.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    I also agree with Æsop.

    HalloweenHJB, to can indeed be a shortening of in order to (or in order to is a lengthening of to?) ... but "this is the key in order to understand" doesn't sound at all right to my ear — for reasons similar to those given by Æsop.

    'In order to' expresses purpose ...

    "I took the car in order to get there quickly" is OK: my purpose in taking the car was to get there quickly. But "This is the car in order to get there quickly" doesn't make sense to me: the car didn't purposely decide to exist so that someone could get there quickly ;).

    Ws:)
     
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    HalloweenHJB

    Senior Member
    American English, Midwest USA
    Well, perhaps my native-speaker intuition is not working correctly, but I am not bothered by either of the following:

    "To understand the issue, this is the key."
    "This is the key to understand the issue."

    Both sound perfectly fine to my (apparently flawed) ear.
     

    JimboFr

    Senior Member
    British English
    The key to understanding French is to eat lots of garlic

    It is key to understand that true mastery of French only comes from shaking your fist like a true Parisian
     

    johndot

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Well, perhaps my native-speaker intuition is not working correctly, but I am not bothered by either of the following:

    "To understand the issue, this is the key."
    "This is the key to understand the issue."

    Both sound perfectly fine to my (apparently flawed) ear.
    And terribly flawed to my fine ear!

    Here is the key to verb? No, I don’t think so;
    Here is the key to the verb? Yes, sounds ok.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    HHJB's mention of shortened forms made me re-examine my native-speaker intuition ;) ...

    Accepted short forms can indeed be ungrammatical until the missing bits are considered.

    "This is the key to understand the issue" could, I guess, be a shortened form of ...
    "This is the key [that you can use] to understand the issue"; or ...
    "This is the key [for you] to understand the issue".

    But, if I judge by the general reaction in this thread, this particular shortening (if such it is) doesn't seem to have achieved wide acceptance yet. Could that be the key to understanding my preference for "the key to understanding"? :rolleyes:

    Ws:)
     

    JTR

    Member
    Spanish
    I don’t understand why most people in this thread consider this is the key to understand the issue to be incorrect.

    Is it not possible to say that to understand the issue is an infinitive phrase that modifies the key? I guess my Spanish mind doesn’t see why in this sentence “to” must function as a preposition and not as part of the infinitive “to understand.”

    Can anyone explain the difference?
    (I hope my question makes sense)
    Thank you very much in advance
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] Is it not possible to say that to understand the issue is an infinitive phrase that modifies the key? I guess my Spanish mind doesn’t see why in this sentence “to” must function as a preposition and not as part of the infinitive “to understand.” [...]
    JTR, I won't attempt to confirm or deny your suggestion — maybe a grammarian could — but I have a feeling that its appropriateness might be linked to whether or not the noun being modified is the subject of the infinitive (?)

    Deviating a little bit from Æsop's explanation, I realised that I'd have no problem with "This is the key to open the door", or "This is the man to solve your problem" — I think that's because the key is doing the opening, the man is doing the solving. These sentences could be re-expressed as "This is the key that opens the door", or "This is the man who can solve your problem".

    But in the case of the 'understanding' sentence, the key is not doing the understanding. You couldn't replace "This is the key to understand the issue" by "This is the key that understands the issue".

    Similarly, "This is the road to failure" and "This is the road to failing your exams" both work (preposition + noun/gerund). But since the road isn't doing the failing, you wouldn't say (would you? ;)) "This is the road to fail your exams" — because you couldn't say "This is the road that fails your exams".

    Does that make any sense?

    Ws:)
     

    HalloweenHJB

    Senior Member
    American English, Midwest USA
    Wordsmyth: Extremely illuminating post. The issue is clearly much more complex than some of us might have suspected. There are a lot of underlying deep structures that the surface only hints at. Nicely done.

    As an educated native speaker of American English, I found "This is the key to understand the issue" quite acceptable simply because I could hear a number of different overtones that the surface structure suggests. I do disagree with those who insist that the phrase is always entirely unacceptable.
     
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    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    I suspect, HHJB, that this is one of those constructions that becomes more widely accepted (and thus more acceptable?) the more it's used.

    Rendezvous here at some future date, to see whether the majority opinion changes.;)

    Ws:)
     

    Bilyana

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Thank you all for this exciting discussion.

    The thread was prompted because in a text I translated from Bulgarian into English the phrase "key to understanding" was corrected to "key to understand", although my "acquired" grammar of the English language was telling me that "to" is a preposition requiring gerund.

    And what is more, when I googled both phrases, "key to understand" generated 2,980,000 occurrences, while "key to understanding" just 1,360,000. As Wordsmyth suggests the norm seems to be changing.

    Thank you all again for the input.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    I'd be a bit cautious about the Google stats, Bilyana — well, we always are, aren't we? ;) — but in this particular case I suspect that the "key to understand" figure might be inflated by including some "key to understanding" hits.

    How Google handles part-words is a mystery to me, but it often includes some (but not all) hits of longer derivative words.

    How it handles exclusions of phrases is also a mystery : I tried Googling
    "key to understand" -"key to understanding" ... and got only 15700 hits!

    Ws:)
     
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