Q: I’ve come across the use of “for to” instead of “to” in a number of songs, poems, and other writing. In fact, a post of yours includes an example from Chaucer: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.” In what context is this usage correct?
A: The old phrase “for to” is now considered archaic or dialectal, but it still gets around, as you’ve noticed.
You can hear it in the Belfast dialect spoken in Northern Ireland, for example, as well as in songs by Bob Dylan.
In Belfast English and Standard English (1995), the linguist Alison Henry includes “I don’t like the children for to be out late” and “They are going home for to see their parents” among her dialectal examples.
In “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan sings, “I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade.” And in “When the Ship Comes In,” he sings, “And the words that are used / For to get the ship confused.”
Of course the usage also appears in older poetry and music, such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “For to Admire” and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with its line “Coming for to carry me home.”
In what context is this usage correct? Well, “for to” was once ordinary usage, but it’s not standard English today. Nevertheless, we’re not particularly bothered when poets and lyricists take liberties with English.
How did all this “for to”-ing begin? Here’s the story.
In Anglo-Saxon times, “for” was a preposition meaning “in front of,” “for the purpose of,” and “because of.” But it sometimes combined with other terms, as in forþan (therefore) and for-hwí (for why).
In the 12th century, as Old English gave way to Middle English, “for” and “to” came together to form the phrasal preposition “for to,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The new term, which meant “in order to,” was used before bare, or “to”-less, infinitives, much like the infinitive marker “to” is now used.
The earliest example of “for to” in the OED is from the Cotton Homilies, written sometime before 1175: “Forte don him understonden” (“For to [in order to] make him understand”).
A little later, “for to” appeared as a conjunction meaning “until.” The first OED example is from the Trinity Homilies (circa 1200):
“For to þe time cam þat he heregede helle” (“Until the time that he harrowed hell”). Translated from the Latin descendit ad inferos (“he descended into hell”) in the Apostles’ Creed, an early medieval statement of Christian belief.
In late Middle English, the phrase “for to” was often used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense, according to the linguist Elly van Gelderen. The subordinate verb referred to an action that followed that of the main verb.
In a 1998 paper in the American Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Literatures, van Gelderen says Chaucer uses “for to” in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386) “to introduce subordinate verbs approximately 430 times.”
The Canterbury quotation in your question is a good example of “for to” used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”
In that excerpt from “The Parson’s Tale,” the main verb, “cometh,” is followed by “for to,” which introduces a subordinate verb, “axe,” that refers to a future action.
In her paper, “The Future of For To,” van Gelderen says the “demise of for to” began as Middle English gave way to Modern English in the 16th century, with “for” and “to” eventually going their separate ways.
However, the “for to” usage continued to be relatively common until well into the 18th century.
The OED’s two most recent examples are from prominent figures in American history: George Washington and Abigail Adams:
“You must ride round ye back of ye Mountain for to get below them.” (From a 1748 entry in Washington’s journal.)
“Having only put off its present glory for to rise finally to a more happy state.” (From a letter written in 1774 from Abigail to John Adams.)
In contemporary English, “for” is either a preposition with many senses (“She’s running for senator,” “He’s being treated for depression,” and so on) or a conjunction meaning “because” or “since” (“I asked them to leave, for I was sleepy”).
And “to” is now a preposition with multiple meanings (“I was close to tears,” “Move the cursor to the left,” etc.) or an infinitive marker (“They want to start a recycling program”).