English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Parsing the Preamble

Q: I’m puzzled by this phrase from the Preamble: “in order to form a more perfect union.” What part of speech is “in order to”? It looks like a preposition. But how can the verb “form” be an object of a preposition? I struggle with this.

 A: You’ve raised an interesting Constitutional question. The short answer is that “in order to” is an idiomatic phrase that might be translated “so as to” and is followed by a verb.

As to what parts of speech are in play here, we think you can regard “in order to form” and similar constructions in two different ways:

(1) “In order to” is a compound preposition that has a bare infinitive (“form”) as its object.

(2) “In order” is a compound preposition that has a “to” infinitive (“to form”) as its object. The “to” here isn’t actually part of the infinitive, as we’ve written before on the blog.

In our opinion, arguing for one view over the other would be splitting hairs.

“In order” may not look like a preposition, but it functions like one, resembling “so as.” And as we’ll explain later, an infinitive can indeed be the object of a preposition.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an explanation that agrees with our option #2 above. Cambridge describes “in order” as a preposition followed by either a “to” infinitive or by a clause starting with “that.”

The “in order that” construction, according to Cambridge, “is somewhat more formal and considerably less frequent” than one with the “to” infinitive. 

And “in order that” requires the use of more words. As Cambridge notes, it often calls for “a modal auxiliary,” such as “might” or “can.”

Take a sentence like “I left work early in order that I might go to the gym.” It’s much wordier than “I left work early in order to go to the gym.” (In fact, as we’ve written before on the blog, you can often drop “in order” and be even less wordy!)

The Cambridge Grammar adds that the subjunctive mood is sometimes used with “in order that,” giving this example: “The administration had to show resolve in order that he not be considered a lame-duck president.” (Note the subjunctive “be.”)

But getting back to “in order to,” we were surprised to find only one standard dictionary that analyzes how the phrase functions as a part of speech.

The Collins English Dictionary calls “in order to” a preposition that is followed by an infinitive. Collins defines the phrase as meaning “so that it is possible to.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language (5th ed.) simply say the phrase means “for the purpose of.”

But that definition is problematic on a literal level, since you can’t swap one expression for the other.

“For the purpose of” is followed by a gerund, like “forming,” while “in order to” is followed by an infinitive, like “form.” (A gerund ends in “-ing” and acts like a noun.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says “in order to” is used “with infinitive expressing purpose.” It defines the phrase as meaning “so as to do or achieve (some end or outcome).”

The OED’s first example of the usage is from the 1609 Douay translation of the Bible: “These are they that speak to Pharao, king of Egypt, in order to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.”

A less lofty example is this caption from a 1994 issue of Food and Wine magazine: “True risotto must be stirred continuously in order to develop its unique texture.”

You expressed some doubt as to whether a verb can be the object of a preposition.

As we wrote on the blog in 2010, an infinitive as well as a gerund can be a direct object. We’ve also written about bare versus “to” infinitives several times, including posts in 2009 and 2013

We’ll add here that it’s not unusual for an infinitive—bare or not—to be the object of a preposition. For example, in all of these sentences, infinitives (both bare and with “to”) are the objects of prepositions:

“He can do everything but cook” … “She had no choice except to lie” … “I’d rather starve instead of steal” …  “We have better things to do than to argue” …”They were about to leave” … “He opened his mouth as if to speak.” (When used in this way, “as if” has a prepositional function, according to Cambridge.)

Finally, a Constitutional footnote. In case you’re bothered by the Founders’ use of  “more perfect” in that passage from the Preamble, take a look at our post on the subject.

Check out our books about the English language