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?

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    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 '13 at 5:06
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    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 '13 at 6:06
  • You may also like to raise this question on ELL ell.stackexchange.com – Kris Feb 19 '13 at 6:39
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    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 '13 at 7:53
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    @KristinaLopez true, but it's a song, so grammar is more malleable – Matt E. Эллен Feb 19 '13 at 15:38

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 '13 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 '13 at 13:19
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    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 '13 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). – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '13 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. – Peter Shor Aug 12 '13 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.).

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    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 '13 at 19:30
  • @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! – FumbleFingers Feb 22 '13 at 19:38
  • ...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. – FumbleFingers Feb 22 '13 at 19:41
  • 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 '13 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 '13 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.

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