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What is the difference between “I have a lot of work to do” and “I have a lot of work to be done”?

Does sentence one mean that “I” do the work?

Does sentence two mean that “someone else” does the work?

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    Nearly. Sentence 2 is actually non-specific about who's going to do the work, rather than saying someone else will be doing it.
    – Rupe
    Jun 12, 2014 at 11:10
  • See also English Language Learners
    – Kris
    Jun 12, 2014 at 12:37
  • The first is ambiguous. It is immediately (wrongly?) interpreted as "I have work that I have to do." The second is unambiguous only in that it leaves nothing for imagination -- it is clear in not mentioning the actor, could be anyone.
    – Kris
    Jun 12, 2014 at 12:39
  • The difference is as much/little as the difference between 'I have to do (a lot of work)' and 'I have a lot of work to be done'.
    – Ram Pillai
    Dec 20, 2019 at 19:31

4 Answers 4

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The difference is that the first sentence clearly states that the speaker has a lot of work which they specifically must do, while the second sentence is not really valid English as it mistakenly conjugates the doing in the passive voice, as if it applies to the work rather than to the agent (I, in this example).

By de-emphasising 'the work', this should be made more clear.

I have (a lot of work) to do

From this we should see that

I have (a lot of work) to be done

makes far less semantic sense, and could possibly imply that there is a lot of work which needs to be done on me, which is highly unlikely to be the intended usage, unless it were to be uttered during a conversation about impending plastic surgery.

There is a lot of work to be done would be far more common usage, and makes it equally ambiguous about who is expected to do the work.

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    If the speaker is a person whose job is to hand out tasks to others, then "I have a lot of work to be done" makes complete sense. The work is theirs (in some sense) but it isn't going to be done by them. Jul 15, 2016 at 16:25
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"I have a lot of work to do" would communicate that the speaker is the person who will be doing the work while the second sentence is incorrect as it should communicate that "the work to be done" is more important than the person doing it. In other words, the "I have" in the second sentence "I have a lot of work to be done" should be replaced by "there is".

The correct sentence then in the passive voice should be,

There is a lot of work to be done.

This sentence is used when the object work takes predominance over the subject "I" and the "I" is understood. The first sentence you used communicates that you are responsible for the work to do and the second, in the corrected form is more ambiguous because it could mean that someone else could do the work and not necessarily you.

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  • The second sentence is not incorrect, it just has a different meaning from the first. Jul 15, 2016 at 16:26
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In English, both historically and in the present day, the combination 'have' + 'to do' has a meaning that relates to something that hasn't happened yet, but is to come. At the same time, it also conveys the sense of obligation on the part of the speaker to do something in some future time (usually, but not necessarily, something imminent).

On the other hand, the expression 'to be done', even without the first verb 'have', focuses on the idea of an event as an accomplished or achieved whole - totally done and dusted (hence termed the perfect aspect), and not on the imminence of, or obligation to, an event that has not yet taken place. In addition, it is in the passive, which means the actual 'doer' of the accomplishment may be left unspecified.

This is the main reason combining 'have' + 'to be done' feels somewhat weird in this type of construction. You're combining meanings in a non-logical way - both aspectual ideas of 'not yet happened' and 'already complete' cause a meaning clash since reality doesn't operate quite that way.

The weirdness is solved by using other less confusing expressions to convey the idea that there is both an obligation and that the event be an accomplished result. So instead of 'to be done', you use the causative 'get' passive: 'to get done.'

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Both these wordings can also be perceived in the context that the individual is simply not interested in applying their time to anything else even if the context and ramifications outweigh their own minor works at hand?

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  • Luke, you should consider rewriting your answer as a positive, supported statement, one that does not end in a question mark. Thanks.
    – J. Taylor
    Nov 28, 2018 at 22:01

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