"What it does is {VERB / to VERB / VERBing} ..."?



For these expressions

What a paper shredder does is tearing the paper/tear the paper in small pieces which can be easily disposed.

What he wants to do is to become/become a ballplayer.

Which of these two forms is correct here to become/become, tearing/tear?


Posted 2013-02-27T14:56:54.813

Reputation: 4 417



There are several different ways of producing subordinate clauses:

  • with that ... that he becomes/should become a baseball player
  • with a marked infinitive ... [him] to become a baseball player
  • with an unmarked infinitive ... become a baseball player
  • with for + a marked infinitive ... for him to become a baseball player
  • with a gerund ... becoming a baseball player

Each lexical verb 'licenses' (permits) some of these, but not all. Want, for instance permits:

  • He wants to become a baseball player ... with an implicit subject = the subject of the main clause
  • I want him to become a baseball player ... AND
  • I want for him to become a baseball player ... with a different subject

But you may not say

  • I want that he should become a baseball player.
  • He wants become a baseball player.
  • He wants becoming a baseball player ... and so forth.

And when you move the pieces around to create what grammarians call cleft constructions, like your What sentences, you have to follow the requirements of the verb, as in What he wants ... is to become.

Do is a little tricky, because it's not ordinarily a main verb; but with other verbs it acts like a modal, taking an unmarked infinitive: Yes, the paper shredder does cut the paper into small pieces. That's why, in your example, you may use either to become to agree with wants or unmarked become to agree with do. In the other construction, though, there is no such ambivalence, and you want the unmarked infinitive:

  • What the paper shredder does is tear the paper into small pieces.

marks an utterance as unacceptable

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-02-27T14:56:54.813

Reputation: 176 469

Many thanks for your answer!! It was really helpful. One more question, so does it mean that any expression 'I want that ....' is incorrect? – Dude – 2013-02-27T22:39:33.340

@Batman Of course I want that car is perfectly OK; but Yes, it is incorrect when that is being used as a subordinating conjunction. That doesn't mean you'll never find this use, but it is neither formal nor colloquial. Take a look at this NGram.

– StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-27T22:45:11.143

@StoneyB Yes subordinating conjunction is what I meant :) – Dude – 2013-02-27T22:48:05.903

@Batman I was pretty certain you did, but subsequent learners may not! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-27T22:49:20.470

@StoneyB I have a few doubts. I have read your answer. And according to that the following sentence should be correct - All they want is to get a house for free and the sentence - All they want is get a house for free - is incorrect. I believe it's not incorrect. Though in COCA what sentence I got is All they want is get a house for free. Another sentence in CGEL - What you must do is (to) apply for special leave - the to is optional. Did I get something wrong from your answer? – Man_From_India – 2015-02-03T06:56:32.100

@StoneyB (cont...) I have really problem to understand when to use to and when to consider it optional in this kind of cleft sentence. Please help. Thanks. – Man_From_India – 2015-02-03T06:57:05.960

@Man_From_India I don't find that sentence on COCA. What's the source? You have to expect slips of the tongue in speech, and typos in written texts. ... With clefts: use whatever form is called for by the verb in the Wh- clause: want...to* get*. I generally use an unmarked infinitive with do, and I advise you to stick to that; but in speech (and colloquial writing) you will find many people using the marked infinitive. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2015-02-03T13:52:37.667

@StoneyB I am sorry. That sentence is a comment from a user. And chances are that he made a mistake there. I was not much careful. Here is the link. http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/ Most wired usages are written by users.

– Man_From_India – 2015-02-03T14:13:55.777

@StoneyB So these sentences are also correct - 1. What would be better is to call them before hand. 2. All the tree need now is watering. And in #1 the to is not optional. Am I right? – Man_From_India – 2015-02-03T14:16:10.240

@Man_From_India 1. Correct, but the to is not optional: the idiom is "It would be better to call them beforehand", "To call them beforehand would be better." 2. "All the tree needS now is watering" = "The tree needs watering". Watering here is a gerund. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2015-02-03T14:26:58.497


For the "become" example, both versions are correct in the sense that native speakers will sometimes say it that way. However, the "to" is not really needed, so the sentence is better without it. ("Omit needless words", as they say; and the version with the extra "to" is somewhat informal.)

What he wants to do is [to] become a ballplayer.

For the paper shredder example, "tearing" is incorrect. Same as with the other example, you can say "to tear", but plain "tear" is probably better. And I would use "into small pieces", not "in small pieces". (Also, every paper shredder I've ever met has had blades, so the correct verb would be cut, not tear, but now I'm just quibbling.)

What the paper shredder does is [to] tear the paper into small pieces.


Posted 2013-02-27T14:56:54.813

Reputation: 5 164

How are to tear and tearing different? I thought to verb and ing form are interchangeable? – Dude – 2013-02-27T18:42:50.537

1@Batman, there might be a few situations where you can construct approximately equivalent sentences with either the verb or its gerund, but that doesn't make them interchangeable. – Martha – 2013-02-27T18:48:08.437

In the first example, "is" cannot be used as an auxilliary/helper verb, since it indicates a condition (What a paper shredder does), not an action as indicated by "tearing". You could say "The paper shredder is tearing the paper in small pieces which can be easily disposed.". – None – 2013-02-27T19:24:31.703

"...into small pieces which can be easily disposed of." A side note: the primary purpose of "shredding" paper is to make it difficult for anyone to put documents back together and steal the information. – Phil Perry – 2014-06-25T18:18:24.050


In your second example, you should use become (without to), as in the following sentence:

the last thing I want my kids to do is become professional fighters.

In your first example, tear is what you should do. Similar phrases are the following ones:

What the church does is provide the mechanism for identifying exceptional holiness.

95% of what the government does is redistribute wealth.

If you change that or alter it by dieting, what the body does is resist.


Posted 2013-02-27T14:56:54.813

Reputation: 20 456