who was sorely <put to it> for breath

< Previous | Next >

thetazuo

Senior Member
Chinese - China
A heavy step was heard ascending the stair, with a great wheezing and rattling as from a man who was sorely put to it for breath.

The Sign of the Four
Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hi. What does “put to it” mean here? I know the general idea is he was struggling for breath.
Thank you.
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I suppose so. But I could only use the expression myself (a) with hard (b) with a following to - either in the form "hard put to do something" or in the form "hard put to it to do something" (the second being more likely).
    For me, it's pretty much a fossilised phrase.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes. The archaic version does mean lacking something — as in (in modern parlance) being “pushed” for money, time, etc.
     
    Last edited:

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    No. I’ve given you the definition: having difficulty in doing something / struggling to do something.

    His parents were hard put to it to afford his school fees.
    You’ll be hard put to find a better deal than this one.
    Thank you again, lb. I thought there were some nuances between “hard put to it for something” and “hard put to it to do something”.

    So is the following understanding right?
    His parents were hard put to it to afford his school fees. (= His parents were hard put to it for his school fees.)
    You’ll be hard put to find a better deal than this one. (=You’ll be hard put to it for a better deal than this one.)
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    In "To be hard put to something" the infinitive put is intransitive: the to is a preposition and what follows the to - the infinitive- is a substantive. This then creates an adverbial modifier.

    1. His parents were hard put to it to afford his school fees. (= His parents were hard put to it for his school fees.) to afford his school fees)
    2. You’ll be hard put to find a better deal than this one. (=You’ll be hard put to it for to find a better deal than this one.)

    In 1, we must know what "it" is for this to make sense. It is sometimes assumed to be "the rack" (a mediaeval instrument of torture) or "fire"1. We also have the less exciting "to be put to work" without the "it" -> to be caused to start working.

    It therefore becomes clear that "to it" and "for the fees" are both modifiers of "put".

    In its more literal sense, then, to be put to it is to be caused to undergo something that is hard and unpleasant.

    1"To be put to the rack" is used as hyperbole for "to go through a great deal of suffering) and "fire" = ordeal by fire or a Biblical reference to human sacrifice.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But as far as I know, a preposition is followed by a noun or gerund, not the infinitive, isn’t it?:confused:
    That’s just a matter of terminology. One school of thought chooses to define the to that precedes a bare infinitive not as a preposition but as an “infinitive marker”.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    But as far as I know, a preposition is followed by a noun or gerund substantive, not the infinitive, isn’t it?
    A "to infinitive" is a substantive, and the bare infinitive often acts as a substantive.
    Infinitives as primaries
    1.3i. As the infinitive originally is a verbal substantive, it is quite natural that it very often has the usual function of a substantive, i. e. is a primary. He can sing originally meant 'he knows singing', and nothing hinders us from still calling sing here the object of can (as in the old"Yet can I musick too").
    (“A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles” Vol3 – Syntax” By Otto Jespersen
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    That’s just a matter of terminology. One school of thought chooses to define the to that precedes a bare infinitive not as a preposition but as an “infinitive marker”.
    A "to infinitive" is a substantive, and the bare infinitive often acts as a substantive.
    In "To be hard put to something" the infinitive put is intransitive: the to is a preposition and what follows the to - the infinitive- is a substantive. This then creates an adverbial modifier.
    Thank you again. But the idiom is “hard put to it to do something”, in which there are two “to”s. I think the first to is a preposition and the second to is an infinitive marker followed by the bare infinitive acting as a substantive. Is my thinking right?
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But the idiom is “hard put to it to do something”, in which there are two “to”s.
    To summarise:

    The current idiom is to be hard put [to it] to do something, in which the “to it” is optional. The version without “to it” seems to be far more common.

    The expression “to be hard put to it for something” is no longer in regular use.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    the second to is an infinitive marker followed by the bare infinitive acting as a substantive.
    I think that the function of "to" is a matter of semantics and dispute - to me it seems to indicate a dative as in "He gave it [to] me".
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top