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The aim of studying English is to keep abreast of the times.

If the sentence is changed into an it-cleft construction...

  1. It is to keep abreast of the times that is the aim of studying English.
  2. It is the aim of studying English that is to keep abreast of the times.

Which one is grammatically correct?

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Both options are technically grammatical, because it's possible to use bare infinitives as the target of to be. However, neither one is a correct construction, because doing so is very rare in English, and comes off sounding archaic or extremely formal.

Your second sentence doesn't split it and its target in the way that you're after, but the structure in the first is correct. All you need to do is change the infinitive to a gerund:

It is keeping abreast of the times that is the aim of studying English.

This kind of construction is clunky - your original sentence is the natural way to phrase things - but it is useful for shifting emphasis around in nuanced ways.

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  • They are "technically grammatical" but neither is a correct construction? You can't have it both ways. If something is not a correct construction, it is agrammatical. The whole issue of cleft sentences is somewhat complicated but one thing is for sure: they are very common in spoken language. – Lambie Nov 15 '16 at 15:47
  • It's because you've overstated the case with "archaic or extremely formal" that I've downvoted this answer. It's to put emphasis on the phrase that is moved to the front that speakers resort to it-clefts. They're not all that rare, especially in written English. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 15 '16 at 16:33
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1) It is to keep abreast of the times that is the aim of studying English. 2) It is the aim of studying English that is to keep abreast of the times.

OK, one could argue that 1) is grammatical but it is very awkward due to the semantic content: keep abreast of something and studying a language. One does not study a language to "keep abreast of the times". One reads newspapers or watches news/cultural programs to do that, for example.

They don't work because the phrase "studying English" cannot have an aim. A person can have an aim in studying English. Likewise, "reading newspapers" cannot have an aim. Only a person doing something can have an aim.

Rewrite:

1) It is to keep abreast of the times that is the [my, your, our] aim in reading newspapers. [grammatical and makes sense] 2) It is [my, your, our] aim in reading newspapers to keep abreast of the times. If you put in THAT, it becomes nonsensical.

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  • You think "studying English" cannot have an aim? Something like "The aim of studying English is to gain fluency" sounds fine to me. – stangdon Nov 15 '16 at 17:05
  • I knew what I said would be misunderstood. No, I would not say: The aim of studying English is to blah blah blah. Studying English does not "have an aim". I would say: MY aim in studying English is blah, blah, blah. My aim, Your aim, Their Aim, Our aim, His or Her aim but not "the aim of studying". OR even: The aim of my (your, his, her, their, our) studying English....YES. :) – Lambie Nov 15 '16 at 18:27
  • To each his own, but I think you're in the minority here - if you search Google Books, there are quite a few uses of "the aim of (activity)". I don't think it implies that there is an inherent purpose or aim to studying English, only that in a particular case, there might be this aim. – stangdon Nov 15 '16 at 18:44
  • /The aim of [activity]/ implies activity has an aim, when, in fact, it is the person engaging in an activity that has an aim. Think about the words, not what you find using google. The aim of education is to teach people something. But not: The aim of educating [an activity] is to teach people. Bad, very bad English. – Lambie Nov 15 '16 at 21:49

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