There is a task in Oxford English Grammar (Basic) by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter that goes as follows: Write a sentence beginning 'What I need is...' Which made me think of which is more preferable - 'the infinitive' or the '-ing form' after the main clause and why?

I am also interested in what this structure is properly called.

Any reference sources are highly appreciated.

1 Answer 1


In the pattern

What I need is... + {some needed action} [rather than some needed thing]

the complement will be an infinitive clause necessarily headed by "to", and the verb will express the idea of "acquire".

... to get some sleep.

If the action needed is some action you yourself must perform, then it goes like this:

What I need to do is ...

and the complement remains an infinitive clause but now optionally headed by "to", and the verb will express the idea of "perform":

... (to) tell them we cannot be there on Thursday.

P.S. You can also complement needs with an -ing form of the verb:

What she needs is coaching.

What the barn needs is painting.

She needs to be coached. The barn needs to be painted. The underlying verb must be transitive when the intended meaning is what must be done to the subject of the verb NEED. This would be ungrammatical:

What she needs is trying harder. ungrammatical

P.P.S. There are some verbs which occupy a gray middle area between transitive and intransitive:

What a good stew needs is simmering.

For this icing the chocolate needs melting.

The stew needs to simmer. The stew needs to be simmered.

The chocolate needs to melt. The chocolate needs to be melted.

Some of those verbs no longer have an intransitive infinitive when an inanimate object is the subject of NEED:

The fence needs repairing.

The fence needs to repair.archaic The fence needs to be repaired.

But we can say:

The body needs to repair and rebuild.

  • Is it possible to use the '-ing form' in the sentence above and if yes - what meaning will it convey?
    – Yukatan
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 11:57
  • 1
    Please see the P.S.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 11:58
  • Does this structure have a special/proper name?
    – Yukatan
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 12:03
  • 1
    I don't know. These are characterisitcs of the verb NEED.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 12:05
  • 1
    I think What I need is traveling is a marginal case. We have the noun travel. What I need is travel. It would also be idiomatic to say What I need to do is (to) travel.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 12:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .