Words to Sound Smart by Using
Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011
Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.
Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.
But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.
The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.
However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.
As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.
Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.