Let's assume that John gave me a cat. I can rephrase the fact with:

What John did was to give me a cat
What John did was give me a cat
What John did was, he gave me a cat

But can I say the following phrase?

What John did was gave me a cat

  • Technically, those are Pseudo-Cleft sentences. Chuck Fillmore explains the difference. See here for other varieties of syntactic cleavage, Jun 6, 2014 at 19:44
  • 2
    Why would anybody do this to a poor sentence? :(
    – Preston
    Jun 6, 2014 at 20:12
  • 1
    "John did give me a cat" ==> "What John did was give me a cat".
    – F.E.
    Jun 6, 2014 at 20:42
  • @F.E. Makes sense, but I was wondering if people simplify "give" into "gave" just like in the case of "suggest he should go => suggest he go => suggest he goes"
    – jules
    Jun 6, 2014 at 21:21
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    You just did. But it's ungrammatical. ('In the past simple and present perfect, we can use the following patterns: What I did in the end was (to) go home.') Jun 6, 2014 at 21:23

1 Answer 1


OK, so if no-one wiser than me out there is going to help you, I'm going to give it a go:

The complement of BE in the first example uses a so-called infinitival construction headed by to, and to is always followed by the plain form of the verb. We know therefore that this instance of the verb GIVE has no tense.

The second example has a plain form, an infinitive, although exactly why this is so is perhaps ambiguous. We can certainly show, however, that GIVE in the second example is not present tense, because it differs from GIVE in the following badly formed sentence, in that it has no inflectional third person s:

  1. All he did was, gives me a cat *

Your third example, however, differs substantially from the first and second because the complement of the verb BE, namely he gave me a cat , is a finite clause and has a subject. These two factors are not co-incidental. Firstly, finite clauses in English must have a subject (unless they are imperatives) - and secondly, only finite clauses in English have tense. The word tense is used here to mean, very specifically, that the verb in question is inflected for time reference (or for modality, or backshift). Because, in your third example, the subject from the relative clause is resumed, the verb can have a full past tense as in gave.

The very short answer to your question, then, is that your interesting fourth example is not allowable because there can be no past tense verb in the clause unless it has an expressed subject. There is no subject in the complement clause gave me a cat and so there can be no tense.

Hope this helps.

  • 1
    "What John did was, gives me a cat" is undeniably wrong because the tenses don't match. You should be comparing "what John did, was gave me a cat" with "what John does, is gives me a cat". I don't think either of these sentences sounds that great. But I think both of them should be considered allowable in informal speech, while "what John did, was gives me a cat" is always wrong. Jun 7, 2014 at 17:32
  • @PeterShor Comparison point taken, but just trying to show that in Jules' example it's an infinitive. Neither acceptable even in informal speech in my variety of English - although the present-past one does sound the worse of the two! Jun 7, 2014 at 17:42
  • For me, if somebody said to me "what John did, was gave me a cat", I probably wouldn't even notice there was anything wrong with it. Whereas if they said was "what John did, was gives me a cat", I would be thinking why doesn't this person know how to speak English? Jun 7, 2014 at 17:46
  • @PeterShor I suppose the grammaticality is in the ear of the beholder :) Jun 7, 2014 at 17:48

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