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I'm trying to figure out what the meaning of to is. By that I mean, what is it's deeper grammatical structure. Knowing that it is a preposition (a pre-position), an infinitive marker, or an adverb isn't very helpful. That doesn't tell you as clearly as calling something a noun or verb does, even though those too don't have crystal clear definitions.

So to get at the internal structure of "to", I'm wondering what languages don't use their own form of "to", and what they do instead. That is, say Chinese doesn't use it. I'm wondering how they would write these sentences/phrases/structures:

  • To eat. (infinitive)
  • I want to eat. ([verb] to [verb])
  • I went to the store. ([verb] to [noun])
  • It went up to the ceiling. ([adverb] to [noun])
  • Another way to put it is... ([noun] to [verb])
  • ten to ​six ([noun] to [noun])

But I'm not just wondering for Chinese, but across languages. Knowing a few languages I could check out further would be helpful.

Another way to put it is, how they would write those example sentences, with a gloss of what it looks like.

I'd also be interested if there are any papers or books that go into more detail on the word "to".

Another note about "to". In I went to the store, "to" feels like it is all about direction. I moves to the store. But in I want to eat, there is not as much direction there. So I am not sure how to interpret this.

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    Same comment here, amigo: if you just knew eg Spanish, even though in the big picture it is very close to English, to think about these examples, it would make everything much clearer. – Adam Bittlingmayer Oct 3 '18 at 19:02
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The word "to" in English basically has three different unrelated uses. Historically they're not entirely unrelated, but it's easiest to think of them nowadays as homophones instead of the same word.

The first one is as a particle. ("Particle" is short for "it doesn't fit into any other category in the syntax but it's still important".) When followed by an uninflected verb, it turns that verb into an infinitive. We call it a separate word because the verb and the "to" can move around separately in the syntax, you can stick things in between, move one but not the other, and so on. But its only meaning is "the verb after this is infinitive".

In other languages, there doesn't have to be a word for this. Kiswahili uses the prefix ku- to mark infinitives: ku-soma "to read", ku-ruka "to jump", ku-tembea "to walk". Classical Latin uses the suffix -re: lege-re "to read", salī-re "to jump", ambulā-re "to walk". Some languages don't mark the infinitive at all, it's just the bare verb form without any other inflection on it.

The second meaning is a preposition, indicating movement toward something. It's pretty common for languages to use an adposition for this, but you can also use case marking like Latin does: eō Rōma-m "I am going to Rome". Or you can mark the verb specially like Russian does: xodit' = "walk", do-xodit' = "walk to". If you just don't want a preposition, you can use a postposition like in Japanese: Tōkyō e iku "go to Tokyo". This is exactly like a preposition except it goes after instead of before.

The third meaning is an adverb, and it's extremely rare in my dialect. For example, someone might say "push the door to", but they'd be more likely to say "push the door closed", or "close the door". So even English doesn't use this meaning much any more; all of your examples fall under one of the first two meanings.

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  • Wondering if there are any languages that don't have "to" in it's prepositional form. Like they would instead say "I went store". I don't see why "to" is necessary in this case, since "went" implies the motion already. – Lance Pollard Oct 3 '18 at 0:29
  • There are languages that don't have a preposition that acts like "to", but that's generally not for the reason you mention (being "built-in" into the verb), but simply because they use inflection instead: Finnish is an example. The verb could theoretically embed the direction, but then you'd need a separate verb for going "from" somewhere, and another for going "into" somewhere (unless no to/into distinction is made), and... well, it gets complicated, so I don't know if (m)any languages do it. Of course, your solution does exist as part of language's variety: you can say "I entered the store" – LjL Oct 3 '18 at 0:45
  • @LancePollard Both Latin and Russian do have a "to"-like preposition, but they also do just fine without it (under certain circumstances), as LjL mentions. In Russian you can change the verb to indicate whether you're going to the store, from the store, through the store, etc. In Latin you can inflect the noun for that. – Draconis Oct 3 '18 at 1:54
  • @Draconis can you give an example of getting away without a preposition in Russian? In most cases you would use a (prefixed) verb and a preposition: дойти до магазина, выйти из магазина, and so on. Do you mean something else? – J-mster Oct 3 '18 at 20:23
  • FWIW, I'm unfamiliar with the third usage in my native AusEng. – curiousdannii Oct 22 '18 at 9:22
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If you can access the Oxford English Dictionary, you can see a vast number of meanings of "to", just looking at their "prep., conj., and adv" entry. Thus, "Expressing motion directed towards and reaching: governing a noun denoting the place, thing, or person approached and reached"; "Expressing direction: In the direction of, towards"; "Indicating the limit of a movement or extension in space"; "Expressing the relation of contact or the like"; "Indicating the full extent, degree, or amount" (the list continues for many pages, covering 35 prepositional senses). Then some 22 verbal-clause senses.

I suggest that rather than looking at precise syntactic frames as in your question, you look at the prepositional and verbal uses as though they are unrelated, then pick a language and ask "How do they convey sense 2 of prepositional 'to', how do they convey sense 15...", and then also ask similar questions about the verbal senses. Although I say they are unrelated, there is actually a connection (which perhaps someone else understands better than I do). In Bantu, the directional locative "to" is in fact the same as the infinitive prefix on verbs.

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  • I'm not sure if it's a coincidence in Bantu or not, but in Latin one of the infinitive suffixes comes from an earlier locative. – Draconis Oct 3 '18 at 1:55
  • @Draconis. But locative expresses location, not movement towards something. – fdb Oct 3 '18 at 9:50
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    @fdb Very true, but it shows the same pattern of spatial metaphors being used for the infinitive. Which I'm guessing is what happened with English "to". – Draconis Oct 3 '18 at 16:20
  • Can you give an example of 'to' used as a conjunction? – amI Oct 4 '18 at 4:09
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Strictly, it is possible that the only language that does not do without "to" is English.

Even if we discard what are obvious quirks of the language, such as its use as an infinitive marker (as in, "I want to eat" - compare Spanish "Quiero comer" or French "Je veux manger"). As user6726 says, there are several different prepositional senses of the word; it can express many different kinds of relations between words, which the average user manages without a second thought, but may be totally misterious for someone whose first language is different, for there is little logic in the cluster of senses of "to".

For instance, this trivial English sentence,

I am going to London.

Could be translated in two different ways into Portuguese:

Eu vou a Londres.

Eu vou para Londres.

(The latter implies the speaker is moving to London, while the former implies a quick trip.)

So, which is the "to" of Portuguese? A or para?

Given the quite anarchic nature of the set of prepositional sences of "to" (and most other English propositions), and the fact that other languages have equally anarchic prepositional systems (why English distinguishes between "at", "in" and "on", where Portuguese does so well with only "em"? Why does English use "on" as a synonym of "about", like here, while in Portuguese this would be "sobre", which can be "about", but also "over"?), the chance there is a language with a word that can be univocally mapped into "to" is infinitesimal.

Evidently, as we move to other languages, with even less relation to English, the confusion can only grow.

So, in principle, all languages, except English, do without "to": they either use different prepositions corresponding to each of "to" senses, or they use other syntactic devices, as noted in other answers and comments: adverbs, verbal affixes, nominal affixes, word order, different verbs, etc.


ETA glosses for your examples, in Portuguese:

  • To eat. (infinitive) - Comer.
  • I want to eat. ([verb] to [verb]) - Quero comer (it is just an infinitive, too).
  • I went to the store. ([verb] to [noun]) - Fui à loja ("à" is the contraction of preposition "a" with article "a") ("to" = "a").
  • It went up to the ceiling. ([adverb] to [noun]) - Subiu no teto ("no" is the contraction of preposition "em" with article "o") ("to" = "em").
  • Another way to put it is... ([noun] to [verb]) - Outra maneira de dizer é... ("to" = "de").
  • ten to ​six ([noun] to [noun]). Dez para as seis ("to" = "para"). Alternatively, Seis menos dez (no "to"; literally, "six minus ten").

Aditionally, European Portuguese uses the prepositon "a", which expresses some of the relations "to" expresses in English, as a marker... not of infinitive, but of what could be called a "composite gerund": "Estou a comer", "I am eating", though literally "I am to eat".

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    My favorite prepositional distinction that English doesn't make is from Korean, which uses different versions of "in" for a snug fit versus a loose one, but has no equivalent of "on". – Draconis Oct 4 '18 at 4:03

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