to be or not to be afraid of being

In language [and life] there are only differences

In language [and life] there are only differences

When we talk about human actions (including speech patterns) in general, it seems quite helpful to discuss using a binary system, whereby you emphasise a difference that is symmetrical (hopefully), which would allow you to illustrate your point much more forcefully and much more persuasively.

For example, if I’m to explain the difference between MUST and CAN’T:

“He must be right. She can’t be right”.

Let’s say I’m listening to two people talking and they’re discussing something, and I happen to be

  • completely in agreement with what he says &
  • in complete disagreement with what she says,
  • in terms of the truth value of what they say.

So I would think:

  • True for him,
  • false for her,
  • pretty sure about both.

If this is the difference and it is pretty symmetrical:

  • almost certain (=100%) that he’s right,
  • almost impossible (=0%) that she is right,

then we have a clear-cut distinction and this seems to show us a point which can be easily grasped.

What about the situations when we don’t have such a clear-cut formal distinction?

When we don’t have a contrast between 1 and 0, between “to be” and “not to be”?

How do we explain prepositions? People want to hear somebody explain how we should use prepositions like TO or FOR or ABOUT. They would like to get a clear, formal rule (see the post on “Hating exceptions”).

Let’s say we take TO and FOR; can you make a clear-cut distinction between them?

Well, you could start with the verbs:

  • we have “to + VERB” usually: I want to eat sushi. I like to watch movies. He tries to be nice. He teaches us how to work, how to learn a language. He paused to think about something else.
  • as an exception, there are a few ING verbs after TO (only when TO is a preposition): I look forward to seeing you.

As a general rule, you could say that we have

  • many examples of  “to VERB” (without ING) &
  • many examples of  “PREPOSITION VERB-ing”, of which the most famous is “FOR VERB-ing”: Sorry for misleading you. Sorry for taking you on such a long-winded trip to explain a basic point. He apologised for being late.

He was sorry to see them go. And we get back to TO.

Why do we say “…sorry to see them go” and not “…sorry for seeing them go”?

Can you say the latter? No, we can only say (in proper English) “…sorry to see them go”.

Why? comes the question.

Isn’t it TO & FOR, and can’t you use either provided that you modify the verb accordingly?

Don’t we have rules that

  1. after TO we have the verb &
  2. after FOR we have the verb plus ING,

and they’re almost equivalent?

This is when you realise that the symmetry stops; formal rules don’t take you very far.

The meanings are easier to contrast:

“Sorry to see you go” shows me a reaction to another (nearly simultaneous) action


“I’m sorry for misleading you” can only be about a past action

(meaning that “I have already misled you by the time I start feeling sorry”).

The temporal relationship between the feeling (“I am sorry”) and the verb-action (“to see” or “misleading”) gives you the key to

  1. when you use (the preposition) FOR (present feeling – past action) &
  2. when you use (the infinitive particle) TO (present feeling – present action).

In the present you cannot go back and change the past (fixed in VERB-ing), but there is still room when you’re reacting to something that may still change

“Sorry to see you go.

What? You’re not going back any more? Okay, then I will not see you go.”

We can discuss “being afraid” in the same manner using contrast of meaning:

“I’m afraid of misleading you when I talk so much. I’m afraid of making a mistake.”

(Here, the preposition changes from FOR to OF).

Why don’t we say

“I’m afraid to make a mistake”?

Because that doesn’t sound like I have a lot of control. I could say:

“I’m afraid to talk for too long because I’m afraid of making a mistake”.

I can control the “talking” part, so I can use TO.

In this situation we have control as the distinguishing feature:

  1. [+control] on the side of TO VERB
  2. [-control] on the side of OF VERBing.

Now, what is the relationship between the feeling and the action? The feeling is that I can do something in one situation:

  1. “I’m afraid to talk.” I can still do something, I still have room to choose whether I talk or not.
  2. By contrast, “I’m afraid of flying” suggests that you’re already in a position where you cannot change what is happening, since you have no control (i.e., you’re not the pilot at the controls).

“I’m afraid of flying birds” is a somehow different situation, since “flying” functions as an adjective, but the common element is there as I’m afraid of things (=birds) over which I have no control.

I cannot control flying birds, so I’m afraid of them.

Let’s now summarise what is different between “to VERB” and “PREPOSITION VERB-ing”:

  1. Freedom to choose between 2 courses of (verb-)action: I’m interested to hear your opinion.
  2. Lack of freedom as we consider only 1 (verb-)action: I’m interested in buying a new house.
Infinitive freedom, Prepositional constraints

Infinit(iv)e freedom, Prepositional constraints

 “To be or not to be”.

I’m considering it and then I have a feeling towards it; perhaps I’m afraid because I don’t know what to choose.

However, when we’re saying “I’m afraid of breaking”, I imagine “breaking” first and then my feelings towards this situation only. I don’t choose the “breaking”; I may do the “breaking” but it’s not controllable by me.

I’m afraid of committing something over which I have no control, something over which if I had control, I would choose NOT to do it.

If I have a choice between falling from the 10th floor and not, I would probably choose NOT and (I guess) most people would choose not to fall. Accordingly,

  1. we say “I’m afraid of falling” &
  2. we don’t say “I’m afraid to fall”.

Is this the reason we argue so much about free will? Is this the reason we talk of the Fall of Man?

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