Noun + to-infinitive clause
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Teresa Lee from Taiwan writes:

Would you please give me some more examples of the formulation noun + to-infinitive, such as permission to enter in the sentence: We were refused permission to enter the building? Is there any rule governing noun + to-infinitive? Many thanks.

Roger Woodham replies:
  There is no rule as such. All we can say is that the to-infinitive clause is used after certain abstract nouns to show what action they relate to. So we can say:
  • She has the ability to achieve good grades at university.

  • I had an urge to put salt into his tea when he wasn't looking.

But to-infinitive clauses do not always follow abstract nouns. If we think of synonyms of ability, such as skill or aptitude, then the structures which these nouns elicit are: aptitude for + noun / verb-ing and skill in verb-ing. Compare the following:

  • He shows an aptitude for (working with) figures and is destined to become an accountant.

  • She demonstrated no little skill in bringing the boat into the harbour in such a rough sea.

It is a matter of learning which prepositional structures are required after which nouns.


Here are some more common abstract nouns which are often followed by a to-infinitive clause:

chance / opportunity desire / inclination need reason  
failure refusal promise readiness way
  • You will have a chance / an opportunity to try out all sorts of water sports on this adventure holiday.

  • I had no desire / inclination to attempt white-water rafting. I found it far too scary.

  • There is no need / reason to stay in bed. You are not ill.

  • His failure to gain a certificate was ascribed to pure laziness.

  • They fulfilled their promise to buy their daughter a pony.

  • Her readiness to sample everything that was put in front of her on the dining table resulted in her becoming a very good cook.

  • His refusal to listen to my advice resulted in a drink-driving conviction.

  • There was no way to stop him getting behind the steering wheel when under the influence of alcohol.

NB: way can be followed by of + verb-ing as well as to + infinitive:

  • There was no way of stopping him from getting behind the steering wheel when under the influence of alcohol.

Note also that many of these nouns have related adjectives or verbs which are followed by to-inifinitive clauses:

  • He was permitted to smoke just one cigar after supper.

  • She felt unable to speak to her father after the divorce.

  • He had re-married and desired to have a child with his new wife.

  • Nobody felt inclined to argue with the gunman.

  • You don't need to be a millionaire to be happy.

  • Everybody else was laughing but I failed to appreciate the joke.

  • He is such a bad driver that I refused to get into his car.

  • I promised to lend him my golf clubs in time for the competition

  • I am always ready to eat blueberry pie with whipped cream.

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