Student Stumper 43: Distinguishing between an Infinitive and a Bare Infinitive

My colleague Holly Dilatush from Learning English with a World Wide Perspective has invited my thoughts on a grammar point. A community member of LEWWWP kicked off January 1 with an interesting question (click here to read). I already offered my initial ideas, but I know there’s more to say. So thank you, Holly and Irina, for giving me the first Student Stumper of 2016!

Question: Why is “to” omitted in this sentence? Now all she wants to do is return to Northumberland. Isn’t it more logical to write to return to Northumberland?

Answer: It’s funny how this question ties into one of the last YT lessons I posted in 2015. In Lesson 9 of Using English Prepositions I addressed the need to be concise and reduce repetition. Without getting into terminology yet, I’ll just say it’s usually best to be efficient with our structures. If we can reduce the instances of to from three to two in that sentence, why not do it?

A second factor here is context. When ideas are already understood, grammar allows us to omit them. An ellipsis can be our friend in direct communication. For example: I’m going to explore this grammar point because my colleague invited me to (explore this grammar point). Why repeat unnecessary words? In the LEWWWP example, the infinitive to return is understood. Using the base form return is sufficient.

There are other situations when we omit the to from an infinitive because it’s understood:

  • I’d love to go and see her.
  • I plan to meet them at the baggage claim and then drive them home.
  • Ask him to call, text, or email me.

The interesting thing about Irina’s example is that we’re dealing with a complement after a copular verb: All she wants to do is return. My understanding is that infinitive complements are more common than bare infinitive complements. We must use bare infinitives after perception verbs and some causative verbs, namely, let, make, and have.  (See my discussion of bare infinitives used with perception verbs.) But more often we see verbs controlling infinitive clauses. I believe in Irina’s sentence we’re dealing with an infinitive clause, but we can omit to because it’s understood from the earlier verb phrase wants to do.

What I want to ask is why the sentence is even set up to have two clauses? (Like the question I just wrote. Ha!) Greenbaum and Quirk discuss pseudo-cleft sentences as a way to focus on the predicate (415). Isn’t that what we’re seeing in Irina’s example? The basic idea is that she wants to return to Northumberland. Subject + predicate. But in the original statement all she wants to do [is] return home to Northumberland there are two clear parts divided by the copular verb is. Subject with a relative clause + copular verb + an infinitive clause as the complement. The complement became the focus.

In other words, the purposeful sequencing highlights a single idea — the answer to the question what does she want? The variation what she really wants to do is return home would fall in line with the examples Greenbaum and Quirk offer because they cite more instances with a wh- clause (embedded question) as the subject. Using that wh- item in the subject position, we then climax to the main idea: return home. The relative clause all she wants to do in Irina’s sentence performs the same function, right? The listener is waiting for the big reveal at the end. What does she want to do? Return home.

Here are additional examples of what I believe to be at the very least approximations of a pseudo-cleft sentence. They each use to do as part of the subject, so only the base verb is used in the subject complement. You’ll notice how they all express either a wish or an intention, which may help us understand why and when we’d use such structures:

  • All that’s left to do is clean up.
  • One thing I still need to do is buy stamps.
  • Something I’ve always wanted to do is bungee jump.

Do you have any examples of your own?



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan Buleychuk (Utter) says:

    I think it is important to firstly determine the intended audience, purpose, and register. When speaking informally, it is appropriate to reduce language according to the context in which it is used; however, this is not an approach that I would approve of, for example, for academic writing. For the sake of word economy, it would be my preference to have a student eliminate one entire infinitive so that the sentence is clear and not redundant, and the grammar is correct.

    All (that) she wants is to return to Northumberland: here, we have the correct verb of desire that sets up the full infinitive, and the meaning is accurate. We can reasonably consider that the verb “return” is something that she can “do”; it’s not possible to return without doing it.

    All (that) she wants to do is Northumberland: here, we lose the meaning by dropping the lexical verb.

    Also, if I were marking this grammar in an academic essay, for example, I would not accept the reduction of “that” in the relative clause.

    As I explain to my students, spoken language is the second language; academic writing is the third!

    1. Hello Susan,

      Thank you for checking out this post and noting something important: the who and why of writing. Indeed, students should bear in mind their audience and purpose as soon as they prepare to write. Register should naturally fall in line with the other two factors. Academic writing can truly be like a third language, as you describe. I didn’t catch on to it until college when a professor (not very constructive with his criticism) wrote “Ack!” liberally on my first paper.

      I like the phrase “word economy,” and I agree it’s important to balance clarity with the appropriate amount of reduction.

      Happy teaching!
      Kind regards,

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