Look at this example: For the butler to attack the robber would be surprising.

Here, the butler and the robber are assigned accusative Case. Is 'For' assigning case to the butler and 'to attack' assigning Case to the robber? Doesn't there need to be a subject in the clause, so something with nominative case?

Am I right in saying 'to attack' does not assign nominative Case to anything?

For sentences such as: 'That the butler attacked the robber is surprising.' I understand the Case assigning, attacked assigns nom. to the butler and acc. to the robber. As soon as an infinitval clause gets involved, I find myself getting very confused. Can anyone help?

  • 2
    "The butler” and “the robber” are not accusative case. NP's other than personal pronouns (and interrogative and relative "who") do not have a contrast between nom and acc so we just call them 'plain' case (or plain form). To say that "butler" was nominative and "robber" accusative would be to make the mistake of confusing inflectional case with grammatical function.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 11:41

1 Answer 1


Though BillJ is right in saying that full NPs have no case in English, I think your question would become valid if we replace the full NPs with personal pronouns:

For me to attack him would be surprising.

To understand the for-complement clause, it is necessary to look into a bit of history. For was not originally a complementiser in English. Sentences like (1a) originally arose:

(1) a. It is [AP healthy [PP for him]] [VP to exercise regularly].

Because 'him' and the subject of 'exercise' co-refer, sentences like (1a) were naturally reanalysed as something like this:

(1) b. It is healthy [S' for [S him to exercise regularly]].

and thus, since [for + NP + to-infinitve VP] is now a nominal constituent, we can have sentences like this:

(1) c. [S' For him to exercise regularly] would be healthy.

The accusative form him thus reflects its earlier status as the complement of the preposition for.

I suspect this is not what you're looking for - your tags suggest you are looking for a theoretical treatment within a Chomskyan framework - but I think we don't really need to look for a synchronic explanation when a good diachronic one exists.


Harris, A. C., & Campbell, L. (1995). Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective (Vol. 74). Cambridge University Press.

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