Saturday, 1 October 2011

All I want is OR are...?

ELT EFL ESL CLIL Grammar Doubts: All I want is or are
I recently stumbled upon a tweet by @beth0513: "Which is correct? All I smell is burning tires *or* are burning tires".

This is quite interesting. Intuitively, I'd say 'is' because I remember the song,"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth"! But, remember my "Lay down, Sally" post? So, I decided to check up on cleft sentences, as these structures are grammatically called.

Michael Swan in Practical English Usage (3rd Edition 130.1-130.5) says "We can emphasise particular words and expressions by putting everything into a kind of relative clause except the words we want to emphasise... The words to be emphasised are joined to the relative clause by is/was and an expression like the person who, or what".

What I smelt was burning tyres.
What I wanted for Christmas was my two front teeth.

'What' can be substituted by 'all' in these cases, and it means "everything" or "the only thing". More examples:

All the students asked for was less of grammar and more of situational dialogues.
All we did at the weekend was swimming and reading.

Michael Swan went on to say "A what-clause is normally considered to be singular; if it begins a cleft sentence it is followed by is/was. But a plural verb is sometimes possible before a plural noun in an informal style."

In other words, @beth0513, we can also say, albeit informally,

All I smell are burning tyres!

I love a grammar challenge, so if you have one, send it to me!



  1. In the US, you can only smelt iron. Tyres don't exist in our universe except possibly as someone's last name or in British detective novels exported here. All this thinking tires me out! ;-)

  2. You can only SMELL... UK spell 'tyre' US spell 'tire', and if they don't exist in your 'universe' it must be very much more advanced than ours. What do your vehicles use? Perhaps they move on a cushion of air - I think that'd be a leap of progress for us! ;-)

  3. I was referring to smelting as in the smelting of iron ore. Alas it doesn't work as the past tense of "smell" in the US, maybe because our sense of smell has been altered by all the smelting plants in places like Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Youngstown. BTW we eat smelts too, bitter little fish - my wife cooks them and likes them. I don't care for them.
    As to our vehicles, well, those of thought anyway, they are mostly propelled by cushions on sofas, or maybe you'd call them divans?


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