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The following is a transcript of the well-known recorded lecture by Prof. Michael Sandel of Harvard University (the cited portion starts at 43:36):

The only argument this painter makes is that the work was necessary to be done. But this is no good answer, because by the same rule, this painter may go through every house in Edinburgh and do what he thinks proper to be done without the landlord's consent, and give the same reason that the work was necessary and that house was the better for it.

For easy reference, I'll number the sentences as follows:

  1. "The work was necessary to be done."

  2. "This painter may do what he thinks proper to be done without the landlord's consent."

Here're my questions:

Is (1) ungrammatical, grammatical but awkward, or natural?

How about (2)?

If you find (1) or (2) awkward or ungrammatical, how would you rewrite them?

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Welcome to ELU. I wouldn't say them quite that way, but I have no objection to either of them. And I will not suggest rewrites because this is a highly specialized field in which the phrases necessary to be done and proper to be done may be "terms of art", technical terms in law, or terms quoted from a pleading or a governing statute or judicial ruling. Accordingly, and for that reason only, I am going to recommend this question be closed as Too Localized; but I will not be unhappy if that recommendation is bypassed. –  StoneyB Oct 21 '12 at 23:17
@StoneyB: I believe you are mistaken. This is not about art or law: it is from a lecture on moral philosophy. There is no technical or other jargon here. This is a fine question. –  Cerberus Oct 22 '12 at 0:05
Google Ngrams shows that necessary to be done was significantly more popular in 1800 than in 2000, when it seemed to fall to almost zero usage. –  user21497 Oct 22 '12 at 0:56
@StoneyB/Cerberus I agree with Cerberus that this cannot be a technical jargon or some such. The reason is because the lecture is "the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public television." link –  JK2 Oct 22 '12 at 1:29
@Cerberus I agree that it's a good question; but the passage in question is a quotation, a legal pleading written by Hume acting as his own lawyer. –  StoneyB Oct 22 '12 at 11:44
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closed as too localized by StoneyB, tchrist, MετάEd, Mitch, kiamlaluno Oct 22 '12 at 21:48

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2 Answers

Such usage is not unprecedented. The Oxford English Dictionary has at least two citations which include necessary to be done. It might be objected that they are from the eighteenth century, but the OED itself, in its definition 33a for do, uses proper or necessary to be done. Moreover, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has four citations for necessary to be done and the British National Corpus, one.

Whether or not the sentences are grammatical, they are not particularly elegant or effective. Alternatives for the first might be:

The only argument this painter makes is that the work was necessary.

The only argument this painter makes is that the work needed to be done.

Alternatives for the second might be:

. . . this painter may go through every house in Edinburgh and do what he thinks proper without the landlord's consent . . .

. . . this painter may go through every house in Edinburgh and do what he thinks it is proper to do without the landlord's consent . . .

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The first sentence is not grammatical. (Be) necessary is not a predicate that allows A-Raising, which is what would raise the subject of be done to the position of subject of be necessary.

It's not the work that's necessary; it's someone doing the work. I.e, the work starts off as the object of do, gets passivized to the subject of be done. The derivation starts off as

  • (For INDEF) to do the work is necessary. ====>
  • (For) the work to be done is necessary.

So far so good. But this is an awkward sentence with a heavy clausal subject, and normally it would be extraposed, viz

  • It is necessary for the work to be done.

However, the writer attempted instead to perform A-Raising, which is a governed rule (i.e, whether it can be applied or not depends on what the main predicate is), and necessary is a predicate that does not govern Raising. Other predicates do, but not necessary (or possible).

  • The work turned out to be done.
  • The work happened to be done.
  • The work is likely to be done.


  • *The work is possible to be done.
  • *The work is necessary to be done.

As for the second sentence, think does govern B-Raising, so

  • what he thinks (to be) proper

is fine, if one stops there. But the author added to be done after it, and (be) proper does not govern A-Raising. Hence it's not grammatical either.

Finally, there is no reason I can see why do the work has to be passivized in the first place; it adds nothing except syntactic complexity, and has tempted the author to indulge here in unsupportable syntactic flights of formality. If this was submitted in a paper in my class, I'd require it to be rewritten (NB: require governs Raising, too).

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But this is not a contemporary use; it's a legal document from 1774, employing the idiom "necessary to be done" (often "fit and necessary to be done") used in legal and political contexts since 1588 and still in use in those contexts today. –  StoneyB Oct 23 '12 at 3:34
Ah, didn't catch that. 200+ years ago English syntax was different; very different. The language is still innovating syntactic constructions to replace its lost morphology and they change at a furious rate (furious for languages, anyway). –  John Lawler Oct 23 '12 at 4:21
Exactly. Need was not yet a common semi-modal. And then legal language is for obvious reasons very slow to change. –  StoneyB Oct 23 '12 at 4:25
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