Before posting this question, I honestly tried to find the answer to my question on this website, but failed. Therefore, I've decided to create a new 'conversation'. Will you consider the following sentence, please:

"I phoned her yesterday afternoon to find out if we could meet in the evening, but she said she was supposed to/had to/was to fly to Brussels and didn't know when she would return." [=she said she was flying to Brussels]

I've read in various sources that "was supposed to" tends to be used for arrangements or something expected that didn't in fact take place (e.g. He was supposed to fly to Berlin but his flight was cancelled). As for the expression "had to", judging by all the examples I've come across so far, it looks like it's always used only for completed actions (e.g. We had to return home because of heavy rain).

Would you mind telling me if it's correct to use "was supposed to/had to/was to" in my example (in which the action/arrangement is not completed)? Besides, I was wondering if it was correct to use Past Simple instead of Past Continuous: ".... she said she flew to Brussels ...".

I'd be very grateful to you for your help.


1 Answer 1


The presenting example sentences

  1. She said she was supposed to fly to Brussels, and didn't know when she'd return.
  2. She said she had to fly to Brussels, and didn't know when she'd return.
  3. She said she was to fly to Brussels, and didn't know when she'd return.

are all grammatical and all suitable for the same occasion, though they don't mean the same thing -- (2), for instance, means she was under an obligation to go, whereas (1) and (3) are only expectations.

But all indicate an expectation of imminent travel, without information about return. We get this plethora of constructions in English because it lacks a future tense -- will is just another modal auxiliary, and so is must, which is had to in the past, and any modal can refer to the future. So can their periphrastic equivalents -- must = have to, will = be going to, should = ought to, can = be able to, etc.

We don't really need a future tense in English; after all, the present and the past can refer to any time at all already.

As for using the progressive/continuous construction, that's OK, too

  1. She said she was flying to Brussels, and didn't know when she'd return.

and means the same. The progressive is often used to indicate things that are in the near future -- I'm leaving today.

And, while was supposed to can introduce an event mishap, it doesn't need to.
If that's all she could say, that's all she could say.

  • Do you really not know how to get an em-dash on your input device? SE has supported Unicode since it started, and as there are many questions here regarding punctuation (not to mention phonetics, it seems reasonable to come into the 21st century. If you tell me what device and operating system you are using, I’m sure I can/will be able to help you.
    – David
    Aug 9, 2021 at 20:12
  • She said she was supposed to fly to Brussels... "Mary said Jane was supposed to fly to Brussels" or "Mary said she (Mary) was supposed to fly to Brussels"?
    – Greybeard
    Aug 9, 2021 at 20:22
  • @David Thank you, but I'm not concerned with punctuation; printing technology is irrelevant to language. Aug 9, 2021 at 21:36
  • 1
    Another similar construction—less formal and possibly US-specific—would be, "She said she was going to fly to Brussels..."
    – RobJarvis
    Aug 9, 2021 at 21:39
  • Normally pronounced was gonna fly; these periphrastic modals get their own special pronunciation, like hafta and hasta, so they can be used in rapid speech. Aug 9, 2021 at 21:45

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