1. What I do is watch TV.
  2. What I did was watch TV.
  3. What I had done was watch TV.


  1. What I am doing is watching TV.

The only possible form of watch in the last sentence is the gerund-participle, which cannot occur in the previous ones:

*What I am doing is watch TV.
*What I did was watching TV.
?What I have done is watching TV.

Do you agree? Why does sentence #4 refuse the general pattern?

(There might or might not be other ways to rephrase these sentences (e.g. to watch in 1, is I'm watching in 4, etc), which I'm not concerned about right now.)

  • 2
    In the present tense, what you are doing is watching. Aug 24, 2016 at 10:53
  • 1
    Yet with the past tense and the perfect (and ...) that symmetry is broken.
    – Færd
    Aug 24, 2016 at 10:56
  • I don't think it's really a "symmetry" is it? Aug 24, 2016 at 11:06
  • That would be the original question in other words, I guess. :)
    – Færd
    Aug 24, 2016 at 11:08
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Yep, but that rationale won't work as a generalisation because of "What I had done was watch TV" Aug 24, 2016 at 13:02

8 Answers 8


I don't know the right way of analysing this, but it seems to me to have to do with grammatical aspect. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston and Pullum) interprets English as having two aspects, progressive and non-progressive. (The perfect is not considered to be an aspect; it's treated as a distinct system for various reasons.)

As far as I can tell, the gerund-participle is marked for progressive aspect, while the infinitive is not.

In your examples, the gerund-participle seems to agree in aspect with the form of the verb "do." (I don't know if "agreement" is technically the right term for this.)

I don't know why it has to match like this.

I found a resource about cleft sentences that just states this fact, but doesn't explain it:

In order to make a verb stand out the construction what … do must be used; different verb forms will be found, according to context. Infinitives with or without to are possible. If the wh-clause contains a verb in the progressive aspect the complement also has a verb in the -ing form:

What they do is dump their products
What I did was (to) call the police
What he was trying to do was just earning your trust

–"Cleft sentences"; handout from the website of Università degli Studi di Padova, Dipartimento Dei Beni Culturali

According to this resource, this construction with "what" is often called a "pseudo-cleft" sentence to distinguish it from sentences using the dummy pronoun "it." They may also be called wh-clefts, apparently.

I found another resource, The Pseudo-Cleft Construction in English by F. R. Higgins, which says:

With the progressive, as is well-known, the predicate complement must have an -ing form, as in (xiii) (their [42a]):

(xiii) What I'm doing is teaching him a lesson.

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any other mentions of the progressive in this book (I initially had high hopes that it might explain how the construction interacts with the English aspectual system).

Some sources mention that some speakers do use the past participle form in sentences such as "What I had done was watch(ed) TV."

In English, [when a verb phrase is focalized], it can appear either as a bare infinitive or as a to-infinitive, as shown in (1c). However, when a progressive -ing form is used in the presuppositional clause, the focus verb has to be in -ing form as well (6a), and when a perfective -en form is used in the presuppositional clause, the focus verb can optionally be in -en form, as in (6b).

(6) a. What I'm doing is patting/*pat/*to pat the cat.
b. What I have done is taken/take/to take a taxi to school.

–"On the Syntactic and Semantic Properties of VP Foci in Pseudocleft Sentences in Japanese", Yuki Ishihara, p. 37

I tried to look up information about the internal grammatical structure of pseudo-cleft sentences, but everything I found looked very complicated.

  • Now I'm having second thoughts about the validity of my question: so there are two aspects, progressive and non-progressive, and in this type of sentence one acts like this and the other acts like that. There remains no deviation from a norm to justify the question why.
    – Færd
    Sep 30, 2016 at 3:09
  • 2
    @Færd: I think it's valid to ask why they have to match. When you put the gerund in front, you can use it with a non-progressive "do": "Watching TV is what I do." In light of this, I think it makes sense to ask why we can't say "*What I do is watching TV."
    – herisson
    Sep 30, 2016 at 3:11
  • 1
    @suməlic My gut instinct and feeling tells me that in the pseudo-cleft sentence watching is a participle, while it's a gerund in the non-cleft sentence. It seems at least related that in at least one other language that uses participles similarly to English (but doesn't use the gerund), namely Spanish, there's a similar dichotomy: “Lo que hago es mirar/*mirando la foto”, but “Lo que estoy haciendo es mirar/mirando la foto”. In Spanish both work in progressive, but not in non-progressive. As far as I know, “Mirando la foto es lo que hago/estoy haciendo” is impossible regardless of aspect. Oct 8, 2016 at 21:14

The examples used in the post are wh-type cleft sentences complement of the verb "be". We know cleft clauses relocate information in an otherwise straightforward sentence for emphasis. lt is just moving the stressed material before and after the predicate; the words to be emphasized are joined to the relative clause by 'is' or 'was'(Swan 139).

The focus of the wh-type cleft normally has to be in the form of a noun phrase or nominal clause. We know "what" is a combination of 'that' + ' which ' and, in that sense has a relative clause in it.

In A Communicative Grammar of English (3rd.Ed.) by Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svarlvik (page 218, sec.422) it is said that the wh-type can focus on the verb by using the substitute of 'do'. The complement of the wh-type cleft sentence takes the form of a non finite clause, most commonly a bare infinitive ( in our example, ' watch TV'). This non finite may be a bare infinitive, a 'to infinitive', an ed-participle or an ing- participle. The examples cited are as under

  • What he'll do is spoil the whole thing (bare form)

  • What he's done is a) spoil the whole thing, b) to spoil the whole thing , or c) spoilt the whole thing.

  • What he is doing is spoiling the whole thing.

As a conclusion it is suggested that the bare infinitive is the most usual construction except after done where the ed-p participle is just as acceptable and after 'doing' where -ing participle has to used. The book doesn't elaborate on the obvious reason of agreement of this nominal phrase with the time and aspect captured in the foregoing ( What...). Our examples can effectively be explained in the light of the foregoing.

http://thegrammarexchange.infopop.cc/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/340600179/m/5221051301?r=2071075301 This link also endorses the view why after copula "be" the gerundial phrase in the predicate portion should be used if the relative clause that precedes the 'be' verb has imperfect aspect.

However the contentious issue being resolved it seems pertinent to add a few words about what-cleft (not wh-type in general) which we know by the name pseudo-cleft in the sense it is cleft for the sake of cleaving — a kind of forced attempt to land with a thud on the real verb by using the substitute verb "do". Hence wh-cleft is treated as thematic equative or "theme rheme" structure expressed by the predicator be where pre copula material should have agreement with the post copula constituents. Infinitive with or without "to"is very much common with any aspect except continuous where the on-going aspect can alone be arrested by gerundial, a look alike of tensed participle.

random-idea-english-blogpost.in/2012/04 clears my confusion when it says the infinitive after verb DO in pseudocleft always goes without TO in North American English and the tendency is fast spreading in BrE as well.

  • @Sumelic special thanks for your right approach to the issue. I have tried my best to explain from reliable sources at hand. Oct 8, 2016 at 20:55
  • Thanks for the additional sources. This seems like such as complicated topic to me! I'm still trying to understand it, and this answer has helped with that. Sorry I wasn't able to award the bounty to you; it expired before I saw your edits. Still, your answer has my +1.
    – herisson
    Oct 8, 2016 at 21:03

Please forgive some more general notes, which I can't fit in a comment. I'd have to agree that the following sentence is ungrammatical:

[1a] *What I am doing is watch TV.

But if we can trigger the purposive nature of the infinitive, then I think it's acceptable:

[1b] What I am doing for distraction is [to] watch TV.

It also strikes me that the more we separate is from the infinitive, the more acceptable it becomes:

[1c] ?What I find that I am doing and much to my consternation is watch TV all day.

  • [1c] is a common situation I think, that too much distance between parts of a sentence may weaken the grammatical interrelation between them. But [1b] is really interesting. Could you (or anyone else) amplify or corroborate it further?
    – Færd
    Oct 1, 2016 at 10:11
  • @Færd 1b is still ungrammatical to me. I can't wrangle a context where I could possibly use it that way. 1c is ungrammatical to me if I think about it, but with the distance and the broken-up, fragmented nature of the entire sentence structure, I probably wouldn't notice in regular speech. Oct 8, 2016 at 21:20

After following in the tracks of sumelic's great answer, I found only one source offering something like advice on the topic of verb forms in pseudo cleft sentences. And that is from (eBook) published teacher from a Hungarian university. At least he gives the following tip:

If we want to emphasise an action, the verb after be usually takes the form that corresponds to the form used in the what-clause[.] - Grammaring.com

Unfortunately there is no explanation as to why the verb usually takes that form and there is even a usually in there.

Every source I have looked at defines a pseudo cleft sentences as Wh-clause + be + X.

  • What I did was watch TV. - [I did] watch TV.
  • What I was doing was watching TV. - [I was] watching TV.
  • What I do is watch TV. - [I do] watch TV.
  • What I am doing is watching TV. - [I am] watching TV.
  • What I am going to do is watch TV. - [I am going to] watch TV.
  • What I will do is watch TV. - [I will] watch TV.
  • What I will be doing is watching TV. - [I will be] watching TV.

It seems to me that the modal verb brings out the infinitive form.

  • What I will have been doing is watch TV. - [I will have to] watch TV.
  • What I have done was watch TV. - [I have to] watch TV.
  • What I had done was watch TV. - [I had to] watch TV.

Remark: This is just a rule of thumb that seems to apply nicely. Unfortunately I was not able to find anything constituting a proper explanation.


I'm not absolutely certain that I understand the question, but I would explain the usage as:

-I'm watching TV. Current action with a beginning and end.

-I watch TV. Ongoing or repeated action, not necessarily current. You might say "I watch TV while I exercise." or "I watch TV often."

Note: Not every language has both verb forms, but English does. Which is why some foreign speakers say "I am catching the bus every day" instead of "I catch the bus every day" Or, in answer to "What are you doing?" "I watch TV" (which makes it sound as though that's all they do, all the time) instead of "I'm watching TV" (which is what they're doing at the time the question is asked).

-I watched TV. Past action with a beginning and end. Example: "What did you do last night?" "I watched TV."

-I was watching TV. Past action. Usually implies that something else happened while you were watching TV. Sometimes implies that the other event interrupted you while you were watching TV. For example, "I was watching TV when my friend rang the doorbell."

-I have watched TV. Past, obviously, but this also suggests that the action was infrequent and/or long ago. For example, "I've watched TV once or twice but I wasn't interested in it."

-I had been watching TV. This is similar to "I was watching TV" in that it usually implies that something else happened and possibly interrupted the TV watching. For example, "What were you doing the night of the murder?" "I had been watching TV before going to bed."

Hope this helps clarify the difference between "watching" and "watch."

  • 3
    You did not explain the usage (as you claimed); you presented some general notes, which I'm grateful for, but are not relevant to the question. If you think the fact that you don't understand the question is because it was ambiguous or vaguely phrased, please inform me more specifically so I can explain or edit my question.
    – Færd
    Sep 28, 2016 at 13:45

"What I'm doing" is just a noun clause. It makes no sense if there's only that one. It needs complement. The sentence will be perfect one only when you put a complement word after the main verb. The main verb is "is". So "watching TV" is complement.

What I'm doing is watching TV = Noun Clause + MV + Complement (present continuous).

If you say this, you are trying to tell someone what you are doing now.

eg. Your friend called you and asked.

  1. Hey what are you doing now?

  2. I'm watching TV (or) What I'm doing is watching TV.

    You're watching TV at that time.

  • First of all, the complement (watching TV) isn't a finite verb, so it doesn't carry tense. In other words, it's not "present continuous". It's a present participle. Secondly, nothing in your answer tells us why an infinitive is allowed as a complement in What I did was [to] watch TV but not in What I am doing is [to] watch TV.
    – deadrat
    Sep 30, 2016 at 4:08

Here's what you are actually saying:

I am watching TV.

commenting on your action:

What I am doing is, I am watching TV.

omitting words without changing the meaning:

What I am doing is watching TV.

  • 1
    Sentence #2 in the original post shows how this argument breaks down: you cannot shorten "What I did was, I watched TV." into "*What I did was watched TV.".
    – Færd
    Sep 21, 2016 at 20:26
  • @Færd Bazza is right in that substituting a reduced relative clause gives you a grammatical if somewhat awkward sentence: What I am doing is [that] I am watching TV. But this is a different grammatical construction from the original.
    – deadrat
    Sep 30, 2016 at 4:15

You are using the present continuous tense of watch. This is the tense used when an action is on-going.

The present continuous tense is constructed by combining a flavor of to be with the present participle (ie, -ing suffixed) version of the action verb.

  • 1
    Where is the associated form of "to be" in the sentence "What I am doing is watching TV"? There is the word "am," but that seems to be associated with the participle "doing."
    – herisson
    Sep 30, 2016 at 2:45
  • 1
    @suməlic - Uh, "is".
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 30, 2016 at 2:47
  • Say that is is combined with watching to form the present continuous; who's the subject now? You'll end up with I is watching.
    – Færd
    Sep 30, 2016 at 2:50
  • 3
    The actual subject is the whole clause What I am doing and watching TV is, I think, the predicative complement: the sentence is of the form: A is B.
    – Færd
    Sep 30, 2016 at 2:53

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