Seems to me that it is equivalent to "He is not to be questioned." There's an element of declaration or assertion I can't pin down!

Context is Stephen Miller speaking about Trump's travel ban, asserting that his power to block immigrants is absolute. I wondered how the tense and grammar was able to suggest this.

  • 2
    Without context it’s impossible to say which of several meanings this intends. – Jim Feb 21 '17 at 1:16
  • Questioning him will not happen // I'm not going to allow you to question him // He refuses to be questioned. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 21 '17 at 1:21
  • So it asserts his power not to allow questioning? It's prohibitive? The "will not" is not primarily used as future? – Telphousia Feb 21 '17 at 1:24

Deontic will

Like all modal verbs, will has both an epistemic sense and a deontic sense. You’re more used to the epistemic one, but this is a deontic use of will not an epistemic one. That means it is not about the future. Only epistemic will is about the future.

A deontic sense is telling you what must be, not what by and by is going to be. That means it is a command, just like in You shall have no other gods before me. That's using shall with the force of must. This is doing the same with will. This is exactly how the RFC 2119 standard uses this language. It means it is an absolute requirement, just like a commandment. It is a command.

It’s also dubiously cast in the passive voice with an unspoken agent. The unspoken agent is the person addressed, or all the world. Since we’re now into issuing commandments, let me rewrite that for you into a more recognizable, Old-Testament sort of style of commandment:

“Thou shalt not question him.”

That’s all it means: you must not question him. Writer H. Rider Haggard’s Queen Ayesha was hardly the first leader who came to be known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, nor has she proven to be the last. The "must be obeyed" thing is very common in leaders of a certain bent, although how this is expressed is usually less um, “Biblically” phrased than in your example.

More deontic will uses

A different but related use of deontic will can be found in the first part of an if statement:

  • If you will please sit down, we can get going.

That’s not the epistemic future, which is banned in if clauses in English. It’s a deontic use of will which here means:

  • If you are willing to sit down, we can get going.

You can also find it in:

  • Do what you will.

where will here carries the sense of want, so it means the same thing as:

  • Do whatever you want to do.

He is not to be questioned sounds like a declaration made about someone being above said questioning, while He will not be questioned just sounds like a declaration that he refuses to be questioned.

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    Hi @Erin-Kate Sousa, I have to disagree a bit. How can you characterize He will not be questioned as solely a refusal? It's essentially the same as the first example; it sounds like a directive meaning that questioning of a certain individual will not be allowed. – freeling10 Feb 21 '17 at 3:30
  • I don't think I characterized it as solely a refusal, I said it sounded like one, because he is not to be questioned is more definitive sounding than he will not be questioned- will not implying some choice in the matter. – Erin-Kate Sousa Feb 21 '17 at 13:50

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