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What are the rules for the tense usage of copular "to be" in pseudo-cleft sentences? I have several examples:

  1. What I didn't like was the end of the movie. --> was
  2. What changed his mind was a book he'd read. --> was
  3. What I have done is write a letter to the editor. --> is
  4. What he did is unforgivable. --> is
  5. What drove us crazy was the noise. --> was (this one is from Parrot's Grammar for English Language Teachers)
  6. Why we came late is because we had to finish the work ourselves. -->is (also from the above-mentioned book)
  7. What I wanted to say is that you're stupid. --> is
  8. What Mary bought was a first edition. --> is

I cannot seem to find any explanation to the usage of "is" vs. "was". The only mention of this that I managed to find is in the F.R.Higgins's "The pseudo-cleft construction in English" (2015, Chapter 6, part 2.1 - Tense Harmony):

That is, there are two tenses, past versus non-past, and the copula may only appear as is or was, regardless of what kind of verb form appears in the what-clause

....in pseudo-cleft sen­tences the tense of the copula must agree with the tense of the verb in the clause.

and also:

Somehow the whole matter of tense harmony is related to the present or past relevance of the subject and the focal item.

But the Parrot's example (#6 in my sentences) seems to contradict this idea:

Why we came late is because we had to finish the work ourselves. "we came late" == past, "we had to finish" == past, but "is" (not "was") is used as a copula.

Is there an explanation or a rule for this concept? Thank you!

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    Pseudo-clefts typically have their backgrounded material placed in a fused relative construction. But unlike "what", the adverb "why" does not occur in fused relatives and thus "why we came late" is not a fused relative. It follows that "Why we came late is because we had to finish the work ourselves" is not a pseudo-cleft construction.
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 12:57
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    "What he did is unforgivable" and "What he did was unforgivable" could both be acceptable depending on the precise meaning (when the judgment is being performed).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 14:04
  • What changed his mind had been a real tragedy not an imagined one.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 14:32

2 Answers 2

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Notice how the pseudo-cleft clause is merely a noun clause that serves as the subject of the copular linking verb "to be," so what tense you'd use is only governed by what you wish to convey, for example:

  • if you wish to convey how things went or were at the time, including how you felt at the time, then you would use a past tense that is in tense agreement with the past tense in the pseudo-cleft clause (e.g., "What I didn't like was the end...," "What changed his mind was a book...," "What he did was unforgivable," etc.),

  • if you wish to convey how things go now or how things are now, possibly emphasizing that present condition or that the result conveyed by the copular "to be" exists in the the present or remains presently, then you'd use a present tense (e.g., "What I didn't like is the end...," What changed his mind is a book..., "What he did is unforgivable," etc., i.e., it's made clear that the end is still what you don't like, his mind remains unchanged or that book still exists and is maybe something you're about to talk about presently, and nothing has interceded since he did what he did to make what he did forgivable such that it is as unforgivable now as it was then, or maybe it was forgivable then but is now unforgivable for some reason, a change in social climate since then, for instance).

As for the third example, since the pseudo-cleft clause uses the present perfect tense, not the past tense like all the others, using the preterit tense "was" for the copular "to be" that links the pseudo-cleft clause to the sentence's predicate would be anachronistic, even a temporal paradox of tense disagreement.

For there to be tense agreement, a present tense, either present simple or present perfect, would have to be used for the copular "to be" linking the pseudo-cleft clause (the subject) to the predicate for the sentence to make sense, for the action in the pseudo-cleft clause not to occur after when it's said to occur with the copular "to be" that links it to the predicate.

The only time machine in grammar is pluperfect. Other than pluperfect, time moves in only one direction: forward. The other examples make sense because time is directionally moving forward, but in the third example, time doesn't move forward. Instead, it directionally jumps backwards with "was" to convey "write letter to the editor" somehow occurs before "what I have done" when "what I have done" and "write a letter to the editor" are being established by the copular "to be" as one and the same-- a grammatical paradox, to be sure.

Therefore, the only possibilities for conjugating the copular "to be" in the third example would be present simple tense "is" or present perfect tense "has been" (i.e., What I have done is write a letter to the editor" or "What I have done has been (to) write a letter to the editor"), depending on what you wish to convey.

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  • Thank you so much for your reply! If we follow the rule of our wish to convey, what can be said about my 6th example? We can clearly see that in the pseudo-cleft part and in the focal part there are events which refer to the past - we CAME late and we HAD to finish. And still it utilizes “is” as a copula, not “was”. Have I missed anything here? Additionally, regarding the 3rd example: you say that it is possible for the copular “to be” to be used as “has been” - does it mean that the book I’m referring to is wrong? It says that it can only be “is” or “was” for non-past and past respectively. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 17:35
  • The backgrounded element in a pseudo-cleft is not a clause at all but a noun phrase in a fused relative construction. "What I didn't like", for example, means "the thing (or "that which") I didn't like.
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 17:38
  • It applies to the sixth example, as well. I didn't continue past three examples because of three being plenty to establish the point, no need to belabor it. The problem with the sixth example is using both "why" and "because." Drop the "because." Whether you say "is" or "was" is entirely up to you. Neither is ungrammatical. Both are grammatically correct, ableit with different effect. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 17:40
  • As for your book, it says "is" is grammatical. "Is" is grammatical, so your book isn't wrong. "Has been" is another possibility. Your book not mentioning that doesn't make what it did say wrong. There're plenty of reasons why a book that teaches English as a second language would omit mentioning a grammatical possibility, like if it only stands to confuse students because of relying on precepts not yet taught, so instead of digressing out of students' depth, it would defer teaching it to after students have been taught the prerequisite knowledge and are thus ready for to be taught it. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 17:54
  • @BillJ - Yes, it's a phrase, but it's also a clause as it has a subject, verb, and object. Just because the structure is sometimes inverted, particularly when "what" is the object, that doesn't make it not a clause (e.g., "What I didn't like" = "I didn't like what" -- That's a complete clause. "I" is the subject, "did like" the complete verb, "n't" an adverb, and "what" the direct object and a pronoun that goes on to be defined as "the end of the movie."). Any tautology is part of the pseudo-cleft device to add emphasis that simply saying "I didn't like the end of the movie" falls short of. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 18:14
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What I didn't like [at that time] was the end of the movie. --> was

What changed his mind [at that time] was a book he'd read. --> was

What I have done [now, currently, at this moment] is write a letter to the editor. --> is

What he did is [still, currently, at this moment] unforgivable. --> is

What drove us crazy [at that time] was the noise. --> was

etc.

They have time frames and the tense of "to be" reflects this.

EDIT

It should be understood that "What" = "The thing(s) that"

There are the following possibilities

  1. It happened in the past and had its effect only in the past

What he did/had done was/had been a disaster.

  1. It happened in the past and had its effect the past and present

What he has done has been a disaster.

  1. It happened in the past and had its effect only in the present.

What he did/had done is a disaster.

  1. It happens in the present and had its effect in the present.

What he does is a disaster.

  1. It happens in the present and will have its effect in the future.

What he does/is doing will be a disaster.

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  • Could this be filled out a little? Isn't the point of the timing not so much whether the act itself is past or present or whether its effects are past or present? So: "What he did to me <ten years ago> is why I am <now> unemployed." But perhaps also, "What you did to me ten years ago is/was why I set fire to your house yesterday.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 13:35
  • What evidence do you have to support the fact that your examples contain 'fused' relative constructions.
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 13:44
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    @Tuffy I thought I had done that with [now, currently, at this moment, still] and [at that time] "What he did to me <ten years ago> is why I am [now, currently, at this moment, still] unemployed." --Compare "What he did to me <ten years ago/at that time> was why I was [at that time] unemployed."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 14:18
  • @Greybeard Sorry if I was dense. I felt the point might be more explicitly made, rather than being, as it were in parenthesis. But essentially, it seems, we agree.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 16:38
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    My opinion is that trying to apply rules to English is often pointless and thankless task. I can think of individual contexts in which any form of the verb "to be" would be correct. I hoped my examples would indicate as much.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 21:17

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