Author Topic: How do we use the phrases "was/were to be" and "was/were to have been"?  (Read 59487 times)

Joe Carillo

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Question by Julius De La Cruz (August 29, 2009):

Could you please explain to me the proper usage of the phrases “was/were to be” and “was/were to have been” as used in sentences that convey actions or incidents that did not happen?

Dear Julius:

The form “was/were to be + past participle of the verb” is normally used in the main clause of a compound passive-voice sentence that conveys an action or event that didn’t happen. A coordinate clause then provides a reason, explanation, or justification as to why the expected action didn’t happen.

“The crop was to be harvested that day, but heavy rains prevented the farmers from harvesting it.” (Compound sentence with “but” as coordinating conjunction)

“The crop was to be harvested that day; however, heavy rains prevented the farmers from harvesting it.” (Compound sentence with “however” as conjunctive adverb)

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Puzzler: Precisely when do you use “was/ were to be” and “was/ were to have been”?

Note than when such passive-voice compound sentences are rendered in the active voice, the form of the verb in the main coordinate clause changes to “was/were + infinitive form of the verb”:

“The farmers were to harvest the crop that day, but the heavy rains prevented them from doing so.”

“The farmers were to harvest the crop that day; however, the heavy rains prevented them from doing so.”

It’s rare for a clause using the form “was/were to be + past participle of the verb” to be a stand-alone clause. If at all, that clause can take a stand-alone form only in answer to a question as to what action or event was expected to happen but didn’t, as in the following exchange:

Question: “What was expected to happen last Monday?”
Answer:   “The prisoners were to be released that day.”

On the other hand, the form “was/were to have been + past participle of the verb” is normally used in the main clause of a compound passive-voice sentence that conveys an action or event that happened later than expected or scheduled. A coordinate clause then provides a reason, explanation, or justification for the delay in the action taken or in the holding of the event.

“The parcel was to have been delivered by noon, but the courier came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

“The parcel was to have been delivered by noon; however, the courier came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

When such passive-voice compound sentences are rendered in the active voice, the form of the verb in the main coordinate clause changes to “was/were supposed/expected/scheduled to have + past participle of the verb”:

“The courier was supposed to have delivered that parcel by noon, but he came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

“The courier was supposed to have delivered that parcel by noon; however, he came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

Clauses using the form “was/were to have been + past participle of the verb” are grammatically very cumbersome and unwieldy when used as stand-alone clauses, so it’s not advisable to use them as such. They should always form part of a compound sentence where the second coordinate clause explains the delay in the consummation of the action or event.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2021, 01:39:35 PM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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"...If at all, that clause can take a stand-alone form only in answer to a question as to what action or event was expected to happen but didn’t, as in the following exchange:..."

Joe,

Is there a grammatical justification for the use of "as to" in the above sentence?    Oldtimers like me use "about" or "of".  To us, "as to" is in the same class as "in respect of" - an abomination!

Joe Carillo

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In American English, "as to" is a perfectly respectable and good-sounding preposition, for which my digital Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary makes the following entry:

as to
Function: preposition
Date: 14th century

1 : AS FOR, ABOUT  <at a loss as to how to explain the error>
2 : ACCORDING TO, BY  <graded as to size and color>

Of course, "about" is also a good choice as preposition for that sentence: "If at all, that clause can take a stand-alone form only in answer to a question about what action or event was expected to happen but didn’t..." In our part of the English-speaking world, though, using the preposition "of" in that particular sentence construction sounds like an abomination as well. Listen: "If at all, that clause can take a stand-alone form only in answer to a question of what action or event was expected to happen but didn’t..." I can live with "about," but I personally wouldn't bet on "of" in that sentence construction!

maxsims

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Yep.    Sounds abominable!   :)