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"What I want to do is read this book."

Is it correct? Or, can I say:

"What I want to do is to read this book."
"What I want to do is reading this book."

Are all of the three sentences correct?

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The first two sound natural to me. The third sounds strange. – TecBrat Jun 3 '13 at 2:53
What you want to do is search this site before posting. – RegDwigнt Jun 3 '13 at 8:57

1 Answer 1

The infinitive read
-- or to read if the complementizer to is retained (it's optional) --
is correct, and the gerund reading is not correct.

This is what's called a Wh-Cleft sentence (also "Pseudo-Cleft"); it's a variety of Clefting, which is a syntactic device to emphasize certain parts of sentences. Clefts come from simple sentences like

  • I want to read this book.

which they then proceed to dissect into parts, add various markers, and mix'n'match, viz.

  • What I want (to do) is (to) read this book. (Wh-Cleft, or Pseudo-Cleft)
  • What I want to read is this book.
  • This book is what I want to read.

  • All I want (to do) is (to) read this book. (All-Cleft)

  • All I want to read is this book.
  • This book is all I want to read.
  • All I want is to read this book.

  • It's this book (that) I want to read. (Cleft, or It-Cleft)

These are all grammatical, and they all mean the same thing, which is

  • I want to read this book.

The reason why read and not reading is correct here is that want takes an infinitive complement, not a gerund. Do is an infinitive, so read has to be an infinitive, too.

If you use a cleft construction, you have to remember what the main verb is, and match it up correctly. Even when it's been moved away, the verb still governs what kind of complement it takes. That's one of the costs of complex constructions.

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I love your answer – Ahmed Masud Jun 3 '13 at 6:04
I have found this sentence in COCA, All they want is get a house for free, it should be to get. Isn't it? And in here in this sentence - What you must do is (to) apply for special leave - there should not be to apply, only apply, but CGEL says here in that sentence to is optional. I am getting a bit confused. Please help. Thanks. – Man_From_India Feb 3 at 7:52
@Man_From_India: In the first one, I would use to get, but if "get a house for free" is a slogan in context, that would turn it into a noun phrase, so no to is needed. I dunno; hafta look at the context. It's not a normal sentence. In the second one the to is indeed optional. The difference is the do pro-verb in the first clause -- it must be matched by an infinitive in the second clause, but since do is a modal complement, it lacks to, and that state can -- optionally -- carry over by conjunction reduction to the second clause. – John Lawler Feb 3 at 15:46
@JohnLawler Thank you for the clarification. But I didn't get your explanation why in the second it's optional. And I am sorry for the wrong info. It indeed appeared in COCA, but later I checked the website where that sentence occurred. And it was written by a user in a comment. The fat chances is that he/she might have made a mistake. – Man_From_India Feb 3 at 16:11

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