Cleft sentences



I would really appreciate your opinion on this matter.

In the following sentence:
What I want to do is study English.
There is the possibility to use the infinitive phrase in the complement with to or without to; that is, I can say: study English or to study English. What explanation can you give the students for this duality?

I understand that the complement study English is more common. Why? Is it just usage? The books that I checked just mention the possibilities but don't explain why.

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Posted 27 August 2002
1. Your sentence is not a cleft sentence, but a pseudo-cleft sentence.

2. Your question involves verb forms rather than sentence patterns.

3. For a detailed discussion of your question, please refer to sections 15.15 and 18.29 of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) by Quirk et al.

Chuncan Feng


According to three grammar sources,* the subject complement in this kind of sentence may be either the full infinitive to study or the bare infinitive study. None of the sources gives preference to one choice over the other.

It is interesting that when I studied English in secondary school many decades ago, the infinitive with to in this kind of sentence (pseudo-cleft) was judged absolutely wrong. In the intervening years, usage seems to have made the full infinitive with to completely acceptable, as well as the bare infinitive. The explanation may be that speakers tend to use the full infinitive to study so as to be parallel to the infinitive in the main clause:

What I want to do is to study English.

Two further points:

1) If the verb in the main clause is in the progressive, the verb form in the complement is the progressive participle:

What hes doing is making a fool of himself

2) By way of contrast, with the grammatical subject ALL (plus an adjective clause), the bare infinitive is much more common:

All you ever do is complain about the neighbors

Marilyn Martin

*Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985).

Biber et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999).

Collins COBUILD English Grammar (1990).