6

It is to be discussed.

Is be + infinitive forming the future tense here?

You are to be dressed and ready by 8:00.

I was thinking it's almost commanding (or speaking of a command) but this doesn't seem to be the case, as sentences like this are commanding without this structure:

You will be dressed and ready by 8:00.

or

You are going to be dressed and ready by 8:00.

And there's sentences like this that don't imply commandment in any way:

I am to go home tomorrow!

or

I am to be home tomorrow!

(Slightly different meaning, same general sentiment)

So what's going on with the be + infinitive structure?

  • 1
    Just because in some contexts a statement concerning something which is to happen in the future might actually be a command doesn't mean that's somehow implicit in the usage. This is just a question about how English uses various "tricks" to indicate futurity (since we don't actually have a "future tense" as such). Which is either General Reference or Too Broad. – FumbleFingers Jul 16 '14 at 12:59
  • The only infinitive in It is to be discussed is actually be. So there is absolutely no be + infinitive in that sentence... – oerkelens Jul 16 '14 at 14:19
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    @oerkelens is to be is be + infinitive. I was just referring to is as be in it's unconjugated form. I should've worded it better. Anyway, I just found the construction to be really unusual and was wondering if anyone had some insight into it. – user3201643 Jul 16 '14 at 16:47
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    @FumbleFingers This is deontic, not epistemic. It is about what must happen, not about what will happen. – tchrist Jul 18 '14 at 20:44
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No, this is not usually a way to indicate the future: it’s more like must than it is like will.

The OED cover this as senses 16 and 17 for be:

  • 16. With the dative infinitive, making a future of appointment or arrangement; hence of necessity, obligation, or duty; in which sense have is now commonly substituted.
  • † 16a. with infinitive active. Obs.
    • 1742 Richardson Pamela III. 264, ― I am to thank you, my dear Miss, for your kind Letter.
  • 16b. with infinitive passive
    • 1869 Freeman Norm. Conq. III. xii. 145 ― Normandy was to be invaded on each side.
  • 17. The same construction is used in the sense of ‘to be proper or fit (to).’ a. with infinitive active. arch. and now commonly expressed by b.
    • Mod. ― Is this house to let? They are not to compare with these.
  • 17b. with infinitive passive
    • 1798 Malthus Popul. (1817) II. 194 ― It must be to be depended upon.

That means this is a deontic periphrastic construction. In other words, be+to+infinitive is simply another way of expressing obligation, just as have+to+infinitive is.

So these are pretty much the same thing:

  • You are to turn in your assignment on time — or not at all.
  • You have to turn in your assignment on time — or not at all.
  • You shall turn in your assignment on time — or not at all.
  • You must turn in your assignment on time — or not at all.

And by the same token, so too are these also essentially equivalent:

  • You are to be dressed and ready by 8 o’clock.
  • You have to be dressed and ready by 8 o’clock.
  • You shall be dressed and ready by 8 o’clock.
  • You must be dressed and ready by 8 o’clock.

One advantage of a finite be or have here is that it can express time (and other things), whereas the modals for the most part cannot.

  • Yesterday, Mr Johnson told me that I was to turn in my assignment on time — or not at all.
  • Yesterday, Mr Johnson told us that we were to turn in our assignment on time — or not at all.

Note that this is not the same as the were+to+infinitive construction uses for hypotheticals as given by OED sense 18:

  • 18. The past subjunctive were with the infinitive makes an emphatically hypothetical condition: cf. the degrees of uncertainty in If I went, If I should go, If I were to go.

So this is completely different from the two previous examples:

  • If I were to turn my assignment in late, would it still count?

There is one more be+to+infinitive, but it does not apply here. It is OED sense 6:

  • 6. Idiomatically, in past, now only in perfect and pluperfect tenses, with to, and a substantive, or infinitive of purpose: To have been (at the proper place) in order to, or for the purpose of. Cf. Sp. and Pg. fué ‘I was’ in sense of ‘I went.’

    • 1760 Goldsmith Cit. W. (1840) 158, ― I was this morning to buy silk for a nightcap.
    • Mod. ― Have you been to the Crystal Palace? I had been to see Irving that night.
  • 2
    I'm not convinced that this covers all the modern usages of the construction. For instance, in "the president is to speak tomorrow at 8", there's barely any trace of obligation. Sampling google books I also get sentences such as "He noticed with some relief that he was to have the same ride tomorrow", where the notion of obligation barely exists. I'd say the construction lives more in the "obligation-expectation-future" continuum, rather being always interchangeable with "have to". – Artefacto Jul 28 '15 at 19:16
1

Modal use of the verbs to be and to have is very common in the English language. They are then followed by the infinitive form (active or passive) of the verb that denotes the action (or state) itself.

In your question, the infinitive means just that: that the first verb to be is used as a modal verb. This use implies that the action/state is one or more of the following:

  • Scheduled: The work is to be completed by Monday.
  • Planned: The database application is ready; now you are to provide the data.
  • Very probable or desirable: You are to wear a tie at the wedding.

So, your It is to be discussed means We plan to discuss it or It's a good idea to discuss it, and the infinitive indicates modal use of to be.

And, to your question: yes, in most cases it is about a future action. However, it may also refer to a «general truth»: You are to arrive on time for work – meaning you always need to do that, and should have done when you didn't in the past.

Similarly, the verb to have followed by the infinitive of a verb means that the action/state must occur because of external conditions or a necessity:

It has to be discussed later: certain conditions prevents this to be discussed now, so we are forced to postpone the discussion.

This also refer to a future action.in most cases, but also to general truths sometimes:

Whenever he uses my computer I have to re-install Windows.

0

tl;dr: be + infinitive can be used to communicate expectations. Whether it is declarative or imperative probably depends more on context than on any particular grammatical feature.

Example 1:

It is to be discussed.

In this example, I read "be" as a copular auxilliary verb. Its complement is the infinitive verb phrase "to be discussed."

I would read "discussed" as a passive verb. This reading requires the listener to fill in the agent from contextual knowledge. (e.g., "It is to be discussed [by the committee].")

Most English users would probably hear this as a declarative statement of someone's intent, not as an imperative command. The same idea could be rephrased as "I expect it to be discussed" or "The committee intends to discuss it."

Example 2:

You are to be dressed and ready by 8:00.

As with Example 1, the sentence starts with a personal pronoun and a copular "be." The complement is the infinitive verb phrase "to be dressed and ready," which is modified by the prepositional phrase "by 8:00."

Though this is grammatically similar to Example 1, most native English speakers would probably read this as an imperative command rather than a declarative statement of someone's intent. Why? Context, context, context.

First of all, the sentence's subject is the second-person pronoun "you." This immediately situates the speaker as "I." Secondly, the speaker has very specific expectations: "dressed and ready by 8:00."

At this point, we should ask why the speaker has such specific expectations. Here are the likeliest explanations I can think of:

Option 1: The speaker is intimately acquainted with what the subject is planning to do.

Option 2: The speaker is communicating expectations to the subject so that the subject will plan accordingly.

Again, the correct interpretation would depend on context. However, Option 2 is much likelier in my experience (and, I suspect, in the experience of most native English speakers).

Here's some more information about the be + to construction in English.

0

Perhaps the most common usage of this construction is in the phrase to be determined, which means that something has not yet been determined (but there is an intention to determine it).  This phrase is commonly abbreviated “TBD”.

  • This is really more of a comment than it is an answer. – tchrist Jul 18 '14 at 21:04
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I think there is an implicit present participle in these cases. In the present progressive tense, you might say I am running. running is the present participle. So I thinking your phrases implicitly say the following:

It is going to be discussed.

You are expected to be dressed... (This implies a command but is not in the command form, making it feel more formal).

I am going to be home tomorrow!

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