Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Why To Bother?

Posted by Neal on December 29, 2011

A couple of months ago, I caught a few minutes of a local morning news show. Coming up was a segment featuring a guy selling a system that would protect your gutter from leaf debris and other gunk. As a teaser for the segment, just before the commercial break, there was a message on the bottom of the screen saying

Why to clean your roof

That one phrase poked a hole in what I’d thought was an interesting case of complementary distribution, which I’d only noticed a few weeks before. I had been thinking about tenseless clauses — clauses in which the verbs don’t have tense, such as Me worry? More specifically, I’d been thinking about tenseless WH questions, such as What to do?, which you might find as rhetorical questions or in soliloquies. For most WH words, the tenseless question uses an infinitive. If you just use the plain form of the verb, it’s ungrammatical:

  • what to do / *what do
  • who(m) to call / *who(m) call
  • where to go / *where go
  • when to go / *when go
  • how to do it / *how do it

For one WH word, though, the pattern is reversed. At least, that’s what I thought:

*why to bother / why bother

I wondered if semantic, pragmatic, or functional differences between tenseless why questions and other tenseless WH questions might explain the difference in syntax. One difference in pragmatics that occurred to me is that the who/what/where/when/how questions are asking the details about an action that you’ve already decided you’re going to do. The why question does not make this presupposition. If you’re asking for a reason to do something, you haven’t decided you’re going to do it yet. But I didn’t see how that would bear on the choice of an infinitive over a plain verb form.

A functional difference that I noticed is that tenseless who/what/where/when/how questions are usually asked to oneself, often in literary contexts (a fact that CGEL notes), with an intention of finding an answer. The why question, on the other hand, is often asked of someone else, with the function of advising against a course of action, the understood answer being “there’s no reason to take this action.” Again, though, I didn’t see what that would have to do with the choice of an infinitive over a plain verb.

There was also, I thought, another syntactic difference, beyond the use of an infinitive or a plain verb form. The infinitival WH questions could stand alone as questions to oneself, or as embedded questions: I know {what to do, who(m) to call, where to go, when to go, how to do it. The tenseless WH questions using the plain form of a verb do not work as embedded questions: *I don’t know why to bother. But this difference still didn’t seem to say anything about the other differences.

After seeing the teaser on TV, I wondered if the original syntactic difference I’d noticed was real at all. A look into COCA shows that it’s not. Out of 103 results for why to, here is just a handful of the relevant hits to go with why to clean your roof:

  • Students will need clear and understandable (browsable) instructions for how to do this as well as why to do this.
  • He said he wants to cut contracting by 10 percent a year for the next three years, which, if you do the math, is about one quarter – a little more than a quarter of all contractors. Why to do that?
  • Knowing what to do, how do it, and perhaps most important, why to do it has become an integral part of teaching.
  • Here are some common reasons why people write short stories… and why to ignore them.
  • think of how many articles help educate readers about how and why to do something
  • Within a sport applications course devoted to teaching preservice physical education majors how and why to modify outdoor sports for secondary students, a 6-day flag football season structured around the Sport Education model is included.
  • I think we lack common sense at times in our judgments of why to justify something.
  • Instead, money had become why to do anything and everything.
  • Not just telling them to be good people, but how to do it and why to do it.
  • The Navajo storyteller Yellowman was asked why to bother to tell Coyote stories to adults.

I even found an embedded why to question:

But when you can say you are a litigator specializing in construction accidents relating to asbestos removal, then people are going to know why to hire you.

That said, there are still a lot fewer COCA hits for why to questions than there are who(m)/what/where/when/how to:

  • how to: 70K
  • what to: 20K
  • where to: 7K
  • when to: 3K
  • who(m) to: 1.5K
  • why to: 100

Now that I’ve learned that why can indeed go with infinitives, what about the other direction, with WH words other than why going with the plain form of the verb? That’s harder to search for, but if you find one in the wild, please put it in the comments.

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10 Responses to “Why To Bother?”

  1. BTW said

    You have an en dash where you should have an em dash, which makes it look like a hyphen, which does rather than opposite job of the em dash. I was trying to figure out what “tenseless clauses-clauses” are, before I finally realized it was a dash. Fixing that will be helpful to your blog readers.

  2. The Ridger said

    Seriously? “I don’t know why to bother” is ungrammatical for you? Wow. It’s perfectly unremarkable to me. It is much the same in meaning as “why I should bother” or “ought” but without the modal judgement (“he doesn’t know why to go” is neutral; “he doesn’t know why he should go” seems prescriptive, as if I (the speaker) do indeed think that he *should* go.)

    At any rate, while I couldn’t begin to speculate on the reason behind the choice. “why bother?” and “why to bother” mean very different things, at least to me. They can’t be substituted for each other. The first is “there is no reason to …” and the second is either (depending on the rest of the sentence) “here is the reason” or “what is the reason”. I don’t think the other wh- words allow the first reading (*what do =/= there is nothing to do).

    • Ran said

      > Seriously? “I don’t know why to bother” is ungrammatical for you? Wow.

      It’s ungrammatical for me as well. I’d have to say either “I don’t know why I bother” (if I do) or “I don’t know why I would bother” (if I don’t); or possibly “I don’t know why I should bother” (if someone is saying or implying that I should) or whatnot.

  3. In your COCA examples, I think there is a difference between these two usages:

    Students will need clear and understandable (browsable) instructions for how to do this as well as why to do this.

    He said he wants to cut contracting by 10 percent a year for the next three years, which, if you do the math, is about one quarter – a little more than a quarter of all contractors. Why to do that?

    The first sentence (and most of the other examples, where ‘why to’ leads on from something else, seem fine to me. But in the second example where it’s on its own, it sounds weird to me, as do these other two examples:

    Instead, money had become why to do anything and everything.
    The Navajo storyteller Yellowman was asked why to bother to tell Coyote stories to adults.

    But for me seven out of ten are fine. Or maybe six and a half.

    • Neal said

      I did notice that a lot of my examples were from contexts in which why to was coordinated with some other WH word plus to, but was working too late at night to follow up on that observation.

  4. Kurt said

    Neal, please help. I’m having a children’s book published, and the grammatical correctness of the title is in dispute. The title is “Who’s Whom in the Tomb.” My editor says it’s incorrect, and fears that teachers will be annoyed by it. My agent [also a veteran editor] says it’s entirely correct. I’ve tried to figure it out, but am stumped. I’d hate to lose what I consider to be a great title. The editor, however, has remained obstinate. Who’s right?

    Thank you.

    • dw said

      Kurt:

      According to standard grammar, your editor is correct. The verb “to be” always takes the subject case as it’s complement. If you want to use “whom”, you have to add a verb of which “whom” is the object. You could have, for example, “Who’s Killing Whom In The Tomb”.

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