Is the question clear? Idiomatic scheme is not a term of art, I guess, but it's idiomatic and it follows a schema.

It's a weird one, for sure. Some thoughts:

  • The Adjective can't be removed

    * The explosion was [easy] to hear

In idiomatic English, this would probably be "could be heard". But In German, the direct translations work: "Die Explosion war zu hören" (was audible), "Die Explosion ist gut zu hören" (was easily heared). In English, "I am to", "I am not not", have developed different meanings (whereas Ger. "Ich bin nicht zu haben" means I'm taken, not to be had).

  • This syntax doesn't work with all adjectives, at least not idiomatically. Compare

    The castle is easy to see from here

    * The castle is possible to see from here

    This is good to know

    * This is terrible to know

I'm using it rather freely though, and want to find out to what extend that's wrong. I was informed that "It is X to Y" might be the more usual form.

  • In my mind the adjective modifies the infinite verb. As such, it should be an infinitive.

  • The syntax of the phrase is similar to "good to him", as if to was not the infinitival marker, but a preposition; Which works in German, where nominalized verbs may take the form of the Infinitive (where English has the gerund), and nouns may take prepositions. In effect I'm not sure how to parse this.

  • Cases of to-infinitives abound, obviously. There's probably an interesting summary of it's origin somewhere. The phrase in question is probably a tangent in that story.

  • The passive voice usually takes is to be, "I am not sure how that is to be explained". German sees the passive expressed with the finite verb alone "Ich weiß nicht, wie das zu erklären ist", although "... wie das zu erklären sein soll" exists.

I don't know a proper term, so I don't know what to search for. Therefore, the title is makeshift. I don't even know what the problem is, so I'm trying to keep it general. What's the grammatical analysis of this phrase in those contexts? Posting here not ell.se for the historic, comparative aspect.

  • 1
    Look into 'tough movement', maybe. I have to say I'm not really seeing the link between this is good to know and I am not sure how....
    – user23078
    Apr 28, 2019 at 19:15
  • @Minty oh, there was no link, "thisconstruction" didn't refer to the preceding point. I removed the note about "not sure how to" in any case. In fact, "sure to" seems to be an example of an adjective that doesn't work in the schema, and always needs to be active if "It was sure to fall" doesn't mean destined to or anything.
    – vectory
    Apr 28, 2019 at 19:50
  • tough movement rather lacks the historic side. The transformation introducing a meaningless "it is" is a non-sequitur, though at least that somewhat works the same in German, but the next transformation with initial "to .. is tough" doesn't, so I think that doesn't work historically, though it explains why you don't delete the adj., "to solve Cris is _", lol.
    – vectory
    Apr 28, 2019 at 21:12
  • Tough-Movement is a minor rule. It's governed by only a few predicates, including easy, hard, difficult, tough, and impossible (but not possible). It doesn't follow the same grammar as major rules.
    – jlawler
    Apr 28, 2019 at 23:30
  • 1
    I feel (but I don't have references for it) a relation to the Classical Latin supine construction like horrible est auditu; maybe this is a loan translation historically. Apr 29, 2019 at 13:34

2 Answers 2


This is an odd one. I'm not sure relating it to modern German is relevant. It is two thousand year since English and High German were one dialect and nearly a thousand years since they were mutually intelligible. That is ample time for each to develop their own syntax. I'm not sure it is a restricted form as statements such as: 'The sea was exhilarating to swim in' and 'Apples are wholesome to eat' demonstrate. But then I would also be happy with 'that's terrible to know' as well. The sentence with 'possible' would seem stilted to me but not ungrammatical. Basically I would start from 'to see the castle is easy' where 'to see the castle' or 'seeing the castle' is a non-finite subordinate clause as subject of an adjectival sentence. I would call it a non-finite noun clause but some people object to that terminology. The subordinate clause has no subject - that is possible in English for non-finite clauses but not finite clauses. There is a standard transformation in English where a subordinate clause as subject is replaced by the word 'it' and the clause is moved to the back-end of the sentence in apposition to 'it': 'it is easy to see the castle'. The problem is when the word 'castle' is the known information (topic, theme) and 'easy to see' is the new information (comment, rheme). There is a tendency in languages to make the known information the first element of a statement. Because of this a syntactic form has developed in English which brings the word 'castle' to the front.

  • I didn't follow the reasoning behind saying that to see the castle is a subordinate clause functioning as subject - what is it subordinate to? Also for me and for what it's worth, the castle is possible to see is ungrammatical.
    – user23078
    Apr 29, 2019 at 19:45
  • 'to see the castle' is the subject of the adjectival sentence 'to see the castle is easy'. 'to see the castle' therefore must be a noun phrase. Recently my experience has been with Middle Egyptian where such an element would be called a 'noun clause' but I know teachers of English who describe it as a 'subordinate clause as subject'. I have just checked Jacobs & Rosenbaum (1968) and they would describe it referring to English as a 'sentence embedded in a noun phrase'. You take your pick what to call it. I would say it is subordinate to the main clause in which it is embedded.
    – Ned
    Apr 29, 2019 at 20:28

Maybe it's a mistake to classify something as an adjective just because it looks like one?

In German, the adjective would usually have an e, er or es at the end, depending on the gender of the noun it refers to, and English got rid of such suffixes.

"The castle is easy to see" would be "Das Schloss ist leicht zu sehen", so no adjective-like ending for the word "leicht". Instead, it looks like an adverb in German. You could also say "Das Schloss ist leicht ersichtlich", which would be pretty much the same. And in this case it's obvious that ersichtlich is an adjective to Schloss. I therefore say, zu sehen (to see) is an adjective to Schloss (castle), too, which makes leicht (easy) an adverb.

The "to" has basically the same function as the ending -able, in words like doable or visible.

Which leads to the question why the castle isn't "easily to see". If you repeat this a few times, you will probably realise it starts not to sound completely wrong anymore. While "this is an easily task" will always sound wrong.

I suppose the reason why English classifies it as an adjective is that it is close to "The castle is an easy thing to see". So leaving out the suffixes leads to using grammatical constructions suitable to similar sentences, even if they may not be logically correct.

I don't even know whether it's historically correct that "easy to see" used to be adverb-adjective in the past in English, or whether the switch was in the German language. But that doesn't really matter.

What matters is that if we add the invisible "thing" or "something" to the example sentences in the question, everything suddenly makes sense. "The castle is [something][easy] to see" lets us leave out the "easy". "The castle is [something] possible to see" doesn't make a lot of sense (except maybe in an Alice-in-Wonderland world). And so on.

Hope this helps a little.

  • Indeed that thought crossed my mind. However, the English syntax seems to employ an amalgamation of "it is easy" and an idiomatic "easy to see". It's obviously not inflected as adverb, so for that alone I would not call it that. The adverb easily would be followed by participle, easily seen. "adverb-adjective" what? easy and possible can't be exchanged, what? I can possibly easily say that the semantics are not the problem.
    – vectory
    Apr 30, 2019 at 5:20

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