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All I did was hand someone a bag.

There are three verbs that come together. The tense of the verb hand confuses me. It doesn't fall into any grammar structure I know so far. It would make more sense to me if it were "All I did was handing..." (because handing is a noun form of the verb) or at least "All I did was handed..." (because it might be equal to "All I did was I handed...").

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2 Answers 2

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First, let's look at a similar sentence:

1a. [ All I wanted ] was 〔an ice cream cone〕.
1b. [ The only thing I wanted ] was 〔an ice cream cone〕.

In example 1a, all I wanted is a noun phrase.
It means the only thing I wanted, so example 1b means the same thing.

Your example is similar:

​2. [ All I did ] was 〔hand someone a bag〕.

Here, the bare infinitival clause hand someone a bag is used as a complement of specifying be.
This is one of the few functions of bare infinitival clauses—they appear mainly as complements of a few specific verbs, and one of those verbs is be.

If you'd like, you can call it a nominal bare infinitive clause, because it appears where a noun phrase would normally be expected. But in any case, this construction is grammatical and totally normal.

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  • I just wonder why there is not "to" - All I did was to hand a bag. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 14:06
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    @LeosLiterak Does this help? ell.stackexchange.com/a/35429/230
    – user230
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 14:09
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Your question was how to explain the verb structure of this sentence: "All I did was hand someone a bag."

I think essentially there is something that resembles a syllepsis. Take a look at these examples for instance:

All I did was cry. --> Here it could be explained by rephrasing a little: "all I did was [I did] cry." The verb that follows did has to be the bare infinitive.

"All he wanted was to be a girl." --> Rephrased into: "All he wanted was [he wanted] to be a girl".


But I also notice that when multiple to-infinitive verbs are joined in a sentence like this one, you have to keep the "to" of the first verb, but you can omit the "to" of the other verbs.

For example: "All he wanted to do was (to) cry". Here both versions work because you can rephrase it into "All he wanted to do was [he wanted] to cry" or "All he wanted to do was [he wanted to] cry".

Another more different example: "All he wanted was to cry and (to) yell". Like the latest example, here both also work because you can rephrase it into "All he wanted was to cry and [he wanted] to yell" "All he wanted was to cry and [he wanted to] yell".

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