The Grammarphobia Blog

Bear facts: the passive infinitive

Q: A narrator on Nat Geo TV who was speaking about a killer grizzly said the “authorities could order him to be destroyed.” Is this construction acceptable? I’d say the “authorities could order that he be destroyed.”

A: A sentence like “The authorities could order him to be destroyed” conjures up images of a judge saying to the bear, “Hey, you, Bruno! Be destroyed!”

But in fact sentences like this have been common for centuries. It’s an example of the passive infinitive.

Here, “to be destroyed” describes something to be done to the bear, not something Bruno is supposed to do to himself.

We often see the passive infinitive after verbs intended to cause something to happen—like “order” or “command”—when the person who’s supposed to carry out the order or command isn’t mentioned.

We’ll invent a few more examples: “I ordered the tree to be planted next to the pond” … “The king commanded the castle to be made ready” … “The vet directed the dog to be euthanized.”

In all those cases, the verbs’ immediate objects—the tree, the castle, the dog—aren’t being told to do anything. Some unnamed person or agent is the one being ordered around.

This kind of construction doesn’t work with every verb under the sun. We wouldn’t say, for example, “I asked the tree to be planted next to the pond” or “The vet advised the dog to be euthanized.”

With those verbs (“advise,” “ask”), a passive construction would call for a “that” clause in the subjunctive mood: “I asked that the tree be planted next to the pond” … “The vet advised that the dog be euthanized.”

(There are other kinds of passive infinitive sentences in which the agent isn’t mentioned: “The car needs to be washed” … “There wasn’t a star to be seen” … “The company is said to be on the ropes.”)

The word order may sound odd in some passive infinitive constructions, but it’s not ungrammatical.

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