I was speaking to an English learner and said, “All you have to do is read a lot.” And they thought that sentence wasn’t grammatically correct because I dropped the word to between is and read.

They thought it should be “All you have to do is to read a lot.” That sounds weird to me.

How do I explain to them the reason you drop the to? Or am I incorrect and it really should have a to?

  • 2
    No, you’re right. This is one of those places where you can use a bare infinitive. I don’t exactly know why but it’s possible that the to particle is distributing to both verbs here.
    – tchrist
    Feb 19, 2013 at 5:06
  • 1
    I'm an English learner and I was taught "to" is optional in the cases such as the one mentioned in the question. You can either keep "to" or omit it. Now I'm confused...
    – Sindry
    Feb 19, 2013 at 6:06
  • You may also like to raise this question on ELL ell.stackexchange.com
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2013 at 6:39
  • 5
    All I Have To Do Is Dream, by The Everly Brothers (1958). /// Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam, dream, dream, dream // Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam, dream, dream, dream // When I want you in my arms // When I want you and all your charms // Whenever I want you, all I have to do is // Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam, dream, dream, dream /// Perfectly normal in American English.
    – user21497
    Feb 19, 2013 at 7:53
  • 1
    @KristinaLopez true, but it's a song, so grammar is more malleable Feb 19, 2013 at 15:38

4 Answers 4


The reality of the language is such that both forms are used, on both sides of the Atlantic, but the bare-infinitive form is clearly preferred, as the stats from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC) illustrate:

                                 COCA     BNC

all you have to do is [inf]       842      72
all you have to do is to [inf]     17      20

The preference does not change if all is replaced with what, if an adverb is introduced before the infinitive, or if a different pronoun is used instead of you. However, what also does not change is that the variant with to at least exists. (A peculiar exception seem to be she and it; negation is another interesting case, but the sample size is sadly too small for those). Sometimes the ratio is a mere 1:60, but other times it's not anywhere as cut and dry. Here are all the stats I have compiled so far:

                                               COCA            BNC

all you/we/they/I have to do is [inf]      842/206/68/62    72/27/9/8
all you/we/they/I have to do is to [inf]    17/  3/ 3/ 5    20/11/4/2

all he/she/it has to do is [inf]            105/40/11         5/3/1
all he/she/it has to do is to [inf]           6/ 0/ 0         2/1/0

all you/we have to do is [adv] [inf]          9/5
all you/we have to do is to [adv] [inf]       0/0

all you/we/they/I have to do is not [inf]     1/1/1/1                 
all you/we/they/I have to do is not to [inf]  0/0/0/0     

what you have to do is [inf]                    59               8
what you have to do is to [inf]                 11               4

what you have to do is [adv] [inf]               8               1
what you have to do is to [adv] [inf]            1               0

So if you want to be on the safe side, bare infinitive certainly is the way to go. It also happens to be the more logical choice, as demonstrated by FumbleFingers in his answer. But we can't label the other option ungrammatical, and its existence can be explained logically as well, as metanalysis.

  • I'd be glad if you could elaborate on why this is metanalysis. I thought that the "to" was meant to nominalize the verb as in the sentence "To die is gain.".
    – Sindry
    Feb 19, 2013 at 13:02
  • @Sindry by metanalysis I mean that "[have to] [do]" is reanalyzed as "[have] [to do]", and consequently the verb after is gets a "to" as well. And again, as FumbleFingers shows, a modal verb such as must doesn't get such treatment (probably not even as a one-off error), which is only further evidence that this is metanalysis at work, and not some sort of general mechanism common to all modal verbs. (And I guess at this point it would be interesting to have a look at ought to.)
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 19, 2013 at 13:19
  • 1
    Thank you. Now I've realized I had been misunderstanding that we can use "to" in any of these "All/what you do is..." sentences. So, there are cases where we can't use "to" at all (not even optional) like "What you must do is...", and in other cases it is almost necessary to use "to" like in "All I hope for is to finish early.".
    – Sindry
    Feb 19, 2013 at 14:04
  • @Reg: I think we're singing from the same hymnsheet here (it all comes down to the speaker deconstructing the initial "non-deleted" form as "[have] [to do]" rather than "[have to] [do]"). I certainly agree that looking at ought in such contexts might be interesting, since (unlike have) that can even work without the initial to (as in What we ought not do is blah blah). Feb 19, 2013 at 14:19
  • This Ngram seems to show that what you must do is to go ... is not uncommon, and used to be the only grammatical way of phrasing it. It certainly occurred. Aug 12, 2013 at 11:56

Try replacing have to with must...

2: What you must do is read a lot.

Not only does the first to disappear; the possibility of including a second one vanishes too.

I think it's easier if we assume these sentences are "cut down" versions of the [hypothetical]...

1a: All you have to do is you have to read a lot.
2a: What you must do is you must read a lot.

Then we see that OP is deleting just one half of the phrasal verb have to, which you shouldn't really do (it should be all or nothing when deleting "the verb"). But because people don't always consciously recognise have to as a "syntactic unit", they do sometimes split it as in OP's example.

It's worth pointing out that native speakers usually delete the repeated subject "you" as well, but it certainly doesn't sound seriously weird to me to leave it in (All you have to do is you read a lot.).

  • 1
    Agree with nearly everything you said (so +1), but diagree strongly with the last sentence. Leaving in the repeated subject "you" to get "all you have to do is you read a lot" doesn't just sound seriously weird to me, but also only semi-intelligible (I'm a native AmE speaker). Would definitely give me pause if I heard it in the wild, and I'd probably ask for clarification.
    – Ben Lee
    Feb 22, 2013 at 19:30
  • 1
    @Ben: I think you're overstating the case when you say you find it "barely intelligible". After all, Mr. Wright here seems to be a Congressman addressing a Senate Committee, and he presumably didn't expect to be accused of being barely intelligible when he said All you have to do is you just have to ask them to. I know it's not "squeaky clean" grammatically, but it ain't that bad! Feb 22, 2013 at 19:38
  • 1
    ...also note that you'd have a hard time making out a case for saying the grammar changes depending on whether it's all or what, and there are thousands of What you have to do is you... in Google Books. Feb 22, 2013 at 19:41
  • 1
    Yes, I was overstating it, and in fact modified my comment before you responded. Changed it to "semi-intelligible" which is more what I meant to begin with, and I added some additional hedging after too. Suffice it to say, my internal grammar-parser has trouble parsing that.
    – Ben Lee
    Feb 22, 2013 at 19:47
  • Not to beat a dead horse, but I was just thinking about this again and it occurs to me that there is a difference in what you wrote in the last sentence of your answer and what you were defending in the comments here. "What you have to do is you have to X" sounds okay to me, and parses without any problems. On the other hand, "what you have to do is you X" (not "have to X") is what sounds completely wrong to me.
    – Ben Lee
    Feb 22, 2013 at 20:52

Many possible ways of looking at this present themselves to me. Let me give you a few of them:

Consider this: "Have to" equates to the now slightly archaic usage of "need." If you were to say, "All you need do is read," it would sound just fine.

Consider this: "Have to do" can also be broken up as "have" and "to do," which then means you "possess" the task of "reading," which is not functionally an infinitive. The infinitive of a verb is intended as the inclusive version of the verb; it is the blanket term for all possible forms and uses of the verb. Your task, in OP, is not somehow the "all-inclusive" version of "reading," but merely your one specific task. This makes the infinitive "to read" incorrect.

Consider this: "To do" is in a sense being "explained" by "read," so "to" is not needed because the explanation requires only the substantive part of the action, namely "read."

Consider this: Repeating the "to" before "read" would simply be redundant, hence unnecessary.


“All you have to do is read a lot.” as opposed to “All you have to do is to read a lot.”

(Much of the following references OED and Jespersen's "A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles.")

The "to" (and its loss) is a vestige of Old English that had grammatical cases in which nouns had suffixes indicating both the dative and the form of the infinitive.

History:—As well as the simple infinitive, or verbal substantive ending in -an (Middle English -en, -e), Old English had a dative form of the same infinitive or a closely-related noun ending in -anne, -enne. In Middle English this reduced successively to -ene, -en, and then, -e, and thus eventually became the same as the simple infinitive and reduced to the uninflected verb-stem.

As an invented example: Help (verb) would have been helpan.

In Middle English, this reduced to “help”.

A/the help (noun) would have had a dative form helpanne/ helpenne

In Middle English the dative noun became -> helpene -> helpen-> helpe->help.

The infinitive and the noun were indistinguishable.

This dative form, which implied to or for {noun}, was governed by the preposition tó/to. Originally, to before the dative infinitive (e.g. to helpan (v.)) had the same meaning and use as before ordinary substantives (e.g. to the helpan (n.)), i.e. it expressed motion, direction, inclination, purpose, etc., toward the act or condition expressed by the infinitive; as in ‘he came to help (i.e. to the help of) his friends’, ‘he went to [the] stay there’, ‘he prepared to [the] depart (i.e. for departure)’, ‘it tends to [the] melt’, ‘he proceeded to speak [the speech]’, ‘looking to receive [the reception[of]] something’.

But in process of time this obvious sense of the preposition 'to' became weakened and generalized, so that tó finally became the ordinary link expressing any prepositional relation in which an infinitive stands to a preceding verb, adjective, or substantive.

The result of the above is that the "to" of the infinitive is now seen as part of the verb, and more a "particle" than a preposition.

  • True, but this relates to the general situation; why is the to optional here but disallowed after a modal like all you should / must do [is]? Dec 20, 2023 at 12:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.