Be to + do

 

Q:

My question is about "is to do" as in "The president is to examine all of the options and plan a course of action."

The OED defines "is to do" as an idiom which implies expectation, i.e., "The president is expected to examine. ..." This is not a satisfying explanation for me. Does anyone know of a more satisfactory answer? How is it related to "If I were to win the lottery, I would take all of my students out to dinner"?

Susan Glowski
[email protected]

A:

Quirk et al. (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985) states that be to + the simple or base form of the verb is quite often used to refer to a future arrangement or plan:

Their daughter is to be married soon.
There’s to be an official inquiry.

They say that in this use, be to + the base form of the verb resembles the future use of the simple present, except that "the simple present cannot normally refer to the future unless it is accompanied by a time adverbial or some other expression that refers to the future."

They also say that be to + the base form of the verb, when referring to the future, also conveys the connotations of "requirement" and "destiny," as in:

You are to be back by 10 p.m.
If he’s to succeed in his new profession, he has to work harder.

Quirk contains a few other entries if you want to follow this further.

A:

While be to + the simple form of the verb (The president is to examine all of the options…) does refer to a kind of future expectation, it is different from the use of were to + the simple form of the verb in the sentence “If I were to win the lottery, I would take all of my students out to dinner.” Does this latter sentence indicate a case of “requirement” or “destiny” as in Quirk’s description of a use of be to?

It does not. Although at first glance, were to in this conditional statement looks similar to the uses discussed above, especially to the example from Quirk et al.:

(a) If he’s to succeed in his new profession, he has to work harder.

…it is not the same. The example from Quirk above in (a) is a present real conditional, using the pattern If (X) be to + (the simple form of the verb). In contrast, the pattern If (X) were to + (simple form of the verb) — used in “If I were to win the lottery I would….” — is a present/future hypothetical conditional and has a completely different meaning. It is a conditional about an unlikely event. This is why the “subjunctive” form were is used — in standard English — with all persons, including the first person pronoun, I.

To further illustrate the distinctive nature of this hypothetical were to – as opposed to the future plan of the simple “be to” -- consider that in literary style, the verb were can precede the grammatical subject:

(b) If I were to win the lottery, I would take all my students out to dinner =
(c)

Were I to win the lottery, I would take all my students out to dinner.

(d) If a meteor were to hit the earth, it would do tremendous harm =
(e)

Were a meteor to hit the earth, it would do tremendous harm

This re-ordering of the verb and grammatical subject (as in (c) and (e) above) cannot occur with the non-subjunctive use of be + to, as in “The president is to examine all of the options…”

In addition, “If I were to win the lottery, I would…” is a close paraphrase of “If I won the lottery, I would…” In this case, the past tense form, won, signals the unreality of the idea, not the idea of “requirement” or “destiny.”

Thus it becomes clear that the use of be to in real conditionals — such as “The president is to examine…” or in “If he is to succeed…” — is not the same as its use in “If I were to win the lottery, I would…” in unreal conditionals. These are separate constructions, with separate meanings.

Marilyn Martin