Before I start screaming once again…

… at my would-be coauthors, would someone please tell them, and every non-native-English-speaker-but-aspiring-English-author, to read this? Please, please, please, please, please.

In English the verb “allow” cannot take an infinitive as a complement. Ever. You may not write “my method allows to improve productivity” (even if it’s true, which it probably isn’t, but never mind). Ever. You may write the equivalent in French, German, Russian, Italian and whatever, but not in English. Ever. In English you do not “allow to” do something. Ever. You allow someone or something to do something. Maybe, or maybe not, your method allows its users to improve productivity. That’s correct English. It is also OK to use a gerund [1]: your method allows improving productivity. Actually that sounds clumsy but at least it is grammatically correct.

The reason the gerund does not sound quite right here is that  in situations where foreign speakers instinctively think “allow to…” in their mother tongues and transport it directly to English, the native English speaker instinctively comes up with  something  different. Typically, one of:

  • Allow someone to, using a specific word instead of “someone”. The English language has a concrete slant and favors expressing all details, including some that in other languages remain implicit.
  • Make it possible to:  a bit wordy, but common and convenient, and definitely correct when followed by an infinitive (“my method makes it possible to improve productivity”). We politely leave it unsaid what the “it” is that is being made possible. This turn of phrase is the easiest if you want to remain as close to the original “allow to…” in your native language. Consider “make it possible to” as a mechanical translation of “allow to”. It works.
  • Support something. Remember this word. It is used more widely in English than its typical translations in other languages. Often it fits just where you initially would come up with “allow to”. Your method may support policies for improving productivity.
  • The gerund. It will sound less clumsy if what you are “allowing” is truly a process, and you are using “allow” in its direct sense of giving permission [2], rather than in the more general and weaker sense of supporting. The rules of tennis allow playing in either singles or doubles.
  • Generalizing the gerund, a plain noun (substantive). You can, in fact, allow something. Your methodology allows productivity improvements. Like the gerund, it does not sound as good as the other forms (“support” is better unless there truly is a notion of permission), but it is correct.
  • Or… nothing at all. Paraphrased from a text seen recently: “some techniques only allow to model internal properties, others allow to model external properties too”. So much better (in any language): some techniques only model internal properties, others also cover external ones. Whoever wrote the first variant should not, in the next three years, be allowed anywhere near the word “allow”.

Some people go around the issue by using “allow for doing something”. That usage is acceptable in American English (less so in British English), but by default “allow for” means something else: tolerating some possible variation in an estimate, as in “plan two hours for your drive, allowing for traffic”. As a substitute for “allowing to” this phrase has no advantage over the solutions listed above.

On last count, I had corrected “allow to” in drafts from coworkers, using one of these solutions, approximately 5,843,944,027 times (allowing for a few cases that I might have forgotten). Enough! Please, please, please, please, please, please, please. Make a note of this. It will allow me to live better, it will allow you to avoid my wrath, it  will make it possible for us to work together again, it will support a better understanding among the people in the world, it will allow faster refereeing and a better peer review process, it covers all needs, and it still allows for human imperfection.

Notes

[1] Or gerundive, or present participle: a word form resulting from addition of the suffix “-ing” to a verb radical.

[2] Note that beyond “allow” this discussion also applies to the verb “permit”. You permit someone to do something.

[3] Post-publication, Oscar Nierstrasz mentioned on Facebook that he has a Web page addressing the same point.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 7.6/10 (9 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
Before I start screaming once again..., 7.6 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
Be Sociable, Share!

3 Comments

  1. nikita says:

    As a small nitpick, permissible in a post about language, allow ONE to point out that English has no gerundive (which is quite different from gerund). :-)

    VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
    Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)
    VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
    • You may be right but please explain; of course I checked the terms (on a couple of grammar-related sites) before including them in my article. These terms do seem to be in common use for the “ing” form of English verbs. I am not a professional grammarian, of course, but then tell me what I should use.

      VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
      Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
      VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
      Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  2. johnstdm says:

    I wholeheartedly concur with this post.

    I might recommend this site (http://www.ozdic.com/) for related frustrations. It’s a collocation dictionary that outlines syntactical use of English words (i.e. collocating preposition, infintive vs. gerund, general synonyms, and example sentences for all of the above). If I had known this site while at Innopolis, I would have insisted that my students consult it when writing papers.

    VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.