In order to ask What should be done? or What should we do? using an infinitival clause, you can readily say What's to be done? or What to do?.

(1) What's to do?

But I've heard (1) used in the same sense, which looks similar, at first blush, to either What's to be done? or What to do? but may well be syntactically different from either of those.

(A) Is (1) contemporary and legitimate, albeit less common than the other alternatives?

(B) Here are some of the constructions I think are similar to (1) in that the verb be functions as something other than a linking verb. Please see if they really are similar ones.

(2) What's to eat?

(3) What's to tell?

(4) Who's to blame?

(5) What's not to like?

(6) The guardrail is to prevent vehicles from driving off the road.

Edit: One way to find coherence among all of these is that you can insert the dummy "there" right after "is" and make their meanings more apparent.

Edit: As for (6), however, I'm not quite sure whether the there in The guardrail is there to prevent vehicles from driving off the road. would be a locative adverb (as opposed to here) or the dummy there (as in There's a book on the desk.)

  • There seems to be more to this question than meets the eye... 1, 2 and 3 sounds off, whereas 3, 4 and 5 do not, but I don't immediately see why. Actually, I have heard (1) quite a lot in an Indian English context, but I don't think I have heard it used by AmE or BrE speakers. – oerkelens Aug 19 '14 at 6:14
  • You mean 1, 2 and 3 vs. 4, 5 and 6? – JK2 Aug 19 '14 at 7:12
  • Uh... yes. /me goes for coffee... – oerkelens Aug 19 '14 at 7:16

There are different structures here. I'll use 'structure' to mean 'the syntax informing the actual meaning involved' rather than 'surface structure' (except where I use 'surface structure'!); thus 'He took the dog a bone' and 'He took the dog a walk' have different structures, as do 'Flying1 planes can be dangerous' and 'Flying2 planes can be dangerous' [adjective or gerund?] as Chomsky famously pointed out.

The 'is for the purpose of' (+ -ing form) structure

(6) The guardrail is to prevent vehicles from driving off the road.

(cf [The job of] this switch is to open the motor circuit)

is common in informal registers; other senses for the same surface structure (eg 'The PM is to go to Iraq'; 'Food is not to be eaten in the library') are listed in this 'Grammaring' article and this BBC article.

The expression 'to blame'

(4) Who's to blame?

is a fixed idiomatic one (AHDEL). Rather than 'that we can blame', it means 'guilty / responsible'.

The other expressions are all commonly used in informal (perhaps grading to slang) registers. They can all readily be seen to be punchier equivalents of say 'What is there [that we can] do? / 'What is there to eat? ('to eat' an idiom for 'available to be eaten' which is a passive infinitive).

Of (1), (2), (3) and (5), (2) is very common in informal BrE, while the rest sound distinctly informal AmE to my ears. (1) often sounds marked, either for something approaching desperation or confrontationally. Though it need not be marked, 'What is there still to do?' conveys this better. (3) and (5) can sound confrontational. (2) sounds unmarked.

An older British meaning for 'What's to do?' is 'What's the matter?'

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  • Thanks for the answer. But I'd rather see whatever commonalities all of the six examples share than have them differentiated from one another. – JK2 Aug 19 '14 at 10:11
  • Do you believe that (6) has the same structure as that of 'The PM is to go to Iraq' or 'Food is not to be eaten in the library'? Despite their similar appearance, I don't think they're in the same structure, because both the latter two examples have a modal meaning to them, whereas (6) does not. – JK2 Aug 19 '14 at 10:15
  • I see. Would you please answer my question in the second "Edit" of the question regarding (6)? – JK2 Aug 20 '14 at 4:42
  • Sorry, I'll relabel: (B) This (re 6) heads rapidly towards 'deep structure' vs 'surface structure' analyses as used in generative grammar. Sadly, terminology is not standardised. Certainly, it is senseless to say that 'Cameron is not to go to Elbonia', 'John is not to go to the party' and 'Playdo is not to eat' should be analysed in identical ways. Paraphrases would not have such similar-looking forms. In the light of which, isn't (A) your first comment here asking for rather trivial comparisons? The 8th section of my answer points out that they can be considered similarly-ellipted forms. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '14 at 8:22
  • ... 'Cameron is not to go to Elbonia', 'John is not to go to the party' and 'Playdo is not to eat' should NOT be analysed in identical ways: 'Cameron will not now be going to Elbonia', 'John must not go to the party!' and 'Playdo is not made to be eaten / Playdo is inedible'. I've added (shallow) (but instructive) analyses of constructions having identical surface structures but different grammar in the answer above. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 23 '14 at 17:07

'What to do' means 'what [am/are I/we] to do'. 'I' and 'be' are assumable elements when omitted. 'What's to do' is actually a question asking for the meaning of the verb 'do'. This is not the same meaning as your first two phrases and should not be used.

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Note the differencebetween nothing to do andnothing to be done.

I’m bored – there’snothing to do. (= Thereare no entertainments.) There’s nothing to bedone – we’ll have to buya new one. (= There’s no way of putting it right.)

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