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a. You can't play, but you want (to).
b. You can leave whenever you want (to).

In (a), I think the version with "to" at the end is more idiomatic, but in (b), I think the version without "to" is more idiomatic. If my observation is correct, how can I explain the different preferences in what seem to be similar constructions?

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  • Since (a) uses don't in the first clause, it hasta use do in the second: I don't wanna play, but you do. In (b), either form is OK, though final want to is always pronounced wanna. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 19:05
  • @JohnLawler Thanks. Right. I've changed (a). In (a), either the former version or the new version, I wouldn't pronounce want to as wanna. In (b), I think I wouldn't pronounce it as wanna, either. Is it wrong to pronounce it just as in (a)?
    – listeneva
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 0:52
  • "You can play, and you want to" doesn't sound very idiomatic to me. What is it supposed to mean? When would you say it?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 0:58
  • @StuartF I think I can say it myself, but I've changed it again. Does the new one sound idiomatic to you?
    – listeneva
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 1:02
  • I don't think there's an explanation. Certain conjunctions prefer "to" after them. So "but" needs "to", while "if" or "whenever" don't.
    – Barmar
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 20:49

2 Answers 2

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+50

Cambridge touches upon the matter.

We always follow want with a complement of some kind. The complement completes the meaning of the clause. The complement can be a noun or pronoun as an object, or a verb in the to-infinitive form, or an object plus a verb in the to-infinitive form: A: Is Elsa going to France with you?
B: No. She doesn’t want to. (She doesn’t want to go [to France].)
Not: She doesn’t want.

So even if you omit the verb go from the complement to avoid repetition, to needs to stay there for the sentence to be complete. Note also that want cannot be followed by that clauses, only by infinitives or by object+to infinitive.

Things are different though when want is preceded by wh- words:

We can use wh-words such as what, when, whenever, wherever, whoever before want. In such cases, it is often not necessary to use the infinitive to after want:

  • You don’t have to stay for the whole lecture. You can leave whenever you want. (or … whenever you want to.)

There is also mention about the use of the infinitive after want in combination with if:

In statements with if, it is often not necessary to use the infinitive to after want:

  • She can park her car at our house, if she wants.

However, we use the infinitive to after want in negative clauses with if:

  • He doesn’t have to stay the night if he doesn’t want to.
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    I think it would be useful to include in your answer this part from your reference page: "In statements with if, it is often not necessary to use the infinitive to after want: She can park her car at our house, if she wants. However, we use the infinitive to after want in negative clauses with if: He doesn’t have to stay the night if he doesn’t want to." Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 23:43
  • @TinfoilHat You are right. Done.
    – fev
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 6:47
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The examples differ markedly.

a. You can't play, but you want (to).

This comprises two main clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (but). In such combinations, following "want", a "to infinitive" as an object is required, this "to infinitive" acts as an NP, but is often reduced to "to" (with a parallel implied infinitive (play))

Compare: "You can't play but you want a prize"

b. You can leave whenever you want (to).

(a) This comprises a main clause joined by a subordinating conjunction (whenever) to an adverbial clause. As the second clause is adverbial, the "to infinitive" is optional and is optionally indicated by "to".

(b) In the alternative, "whenever you want" can be used intransitively to mean "whenever that (= leaving/to leave) is your wish".

The adverbial clause can be further reduced to simply "whenever."

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    As the second clause is adverbial, the "to infinitive" is optional and is optionally indicated by "to". <-- I don't think that this is correct. For example: "She entered the contest because she wanted to." Even though it's in an adverbial clause, "to" is not optional. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 3:18

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