Once upon I time I asked the following question during a class for the CAE certification:

What does it mean to [verb and something else]?

and I was told that that's not English, as I should say

What does to [verb and something else] mean?

However, [verb and something else] can be longer than just a verb; it could be be between a rock and a hard place, for instance.

I have the feeling that in such a situation, the first form is preferred or, at least, not discouraged.

Indeed, this is what I read in a book

Like Othello, it isn't particularly hard to learn the rules of CSS

as opposed to

Like Othello, learning the rules of CSS isn't particularly hard.

My question is the following. Is there a kind of threshold on the lenght of [verb and something else] that should make someone prefer the one or the other form?

  • Sadly, many ESL references are poorly written.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 22, 2020 at 21:00
  • @HotLicks , ESL?
    – Enlico
    Jun 22, 2020 at 21:03

2 Answers 2


Your intuition that it is about length is spot on. One of the reasons to use a cleft sentence is certainly to ease the burden of processing a long descriptive phrase. It lets the right tail of the sentence extend longer so that a very heavy phrase/constituent is not in the middle or beginning of the sentence, which is useful in a head-initial language like English.

Picture the case where there is a brief description like "is easy" and a very lengthy subject, like "to learn the rules, experiment with the code, and write your first program". It's hard for a listener to hear this all and then reconcile it with the category "easy". So in this case, it eases that burden to put the description early as a cleft with "It's easy". There isn't a hard and fast rule about how long the subject can be before clefting is mandatory. I would say, at the very least, if the subject has multiple clauses, as in my example, clefting is preferred.

It may also just be the speaker's choice. Placing words at the beginning sets the topic/setting for a listener, and placing words toward the end of a sentence naturally cues a listener to pay more attention to that part, either because it is new or emphasized information. Clefting a sentence helps with this process.

Keeping the Othello theme, To learn the rules is simple, but to master the game is hard emphasizes the contrasting qualities, assigning simple to the rules and hard to mastering, concepts the listener may already distinguish.

It's simple to learn the rules, but hard to master the game focuses on the contrast of learning and mastering, putting them in to categories of simple things and hard things, categories which the listener may already understand.


As I see it, there is a threshold, which is not given by a clear-cut specification as to the number of words and/or their length; however, the threshold being reached still does not justify in my opinion, resorting to the inversion, which would still not be good English; instead, it means using an appositive construction.

  • What is the meaning of the phrase "to [verb and something else]"?

(after comments from chasly from UK and Peter Shore)

  • Are you saying, "What does mean ..." is correct? If so, you are wrong. Jun 22, 2020 at 22:07
  • "What means the phrase?" is French (and Shakespeare's) word order. We don't make questions this way in today's English. Jun 22, 2020 at 23:12
  • @PeterShor It's from 1825: At the novel doctrine, the people have been alarmed, society convulsed, and inquiry receives no satisfaction when she asks what means this line in the Constitution of the United States (books.google.fr/…). Is that outdated too?
    – LPH
    Jun 22, 2020 at 23:27
  • 1825 is only slightly closer to 2020 than to Shakespeare. It's outdated now (except when people are deliberately trying to sound archaic, and for a few fixed idioms). Jun 23, 2020 at 0:57

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