Saturday, 8 December 2007

On to or not

A correspondent writes about the use of to in such constructions as:

(1) I shall have to do more than (to) speak to him
(2) The new scheme will have to do more than (to) allow all women to....
(3) What I want to do is (to) go to Australia.
(4) (To) go to Australia is what I want to do.

He finds the to-less versions odd, especially in writing.

I don't have a problem with any of the to-less versions, actually. What we do have, I think, is a contrast of formality, with the to-ful versions more formal - and thus more likely to appear in writing. (A similar kind of contrast operates with the presence or absence of that in such sentences as I said (that) it would rain.) But the situation is complicated here by phonological factors. There is a euphony issue with a repeated to: many people don't like to do more than to speak and suchlike. Also there is a rhythmical issue with to do more than to allow, as the than to brings two unstressed syllables together, and this goes against the preference for iambic stress-timing in English, which is better preserved in more than allow. So I would expect acceptability intuitions to vary a little with respect to these examples.

If (4) feels odd (and I do find it a bit so), it is probably because of the unusual nature of the construction, seen in isolation. Within a discourse, with an appropriate intonation to express the emphatic contrast involved, I don't think the to-less version would attract attention. The version with to would be less likely, as (4) is plainly part of an informal exchange, and this would motivate the elliptical alternative.


Anonymous said...

I've actually just been looking at so-called "pseudo-cleft sentences" and it seems that some of the examples given by your correspondent are such sentences.

Was wondering whether the ellipsis of the "to" might also have something to do with the fact that the verb "do" is used. Every example has a "do". Perhaps it is this that licenses the omission of the "to"? I have no idea why though. Maybe you can tell me? (assuming that it's not just a coincidence that all of the examples contain "do" in some form

DC said...

Yes, (3) and (4) are so-called pseudo-clefts, i.e. SVC sentences with a nominal relative clause as subject or complement. The issue discussed in that post is nothing to do with do. These were just a couple of sentences chosen at random by my correspondent. Having said that, there is an association with substitute-verb do in pseudo-clefts, because using that verb allows a secondary focus to anticipate the main focus which comes at the end of the sentence, as in:

What Mike did was leave.
What I'm doing is reading.