I saw a sentence but I am not sure about its tense.

She was to prepare for the spelling test.

I think instead of "was", "has" or "had" is better. I think that "was" is wrongly used here.

  • 6
    You are not to play with this catnip until you have done your homework, do you understand?!
    – TimR
    Sep 3, 2016 at 17:59
  • @TRomano: That's interesting! In your context (specifically because of the negation, I'm guessing) both verbs imply "obligation" rather than "plan". You have (=**haff*) to not play with it. But there's also You are to not play with it, at the margins. Sep 3, 2016 at 18:55
  • @FumbleFingers: Your plan or prearrangement is fine. The quasi modal use covers a spectrum that ranges from "here's the plan, dude", through "instruction" and "command" to "the unavoidable".
    – TimR
    Sep 3, 2016 at 19:11
  • She was to prepare. It think it's related to subjunctive clause Sep 3, 2016 at 22:47

5 Answers 5


They're both valid, and I don't recall this specific distinction being raised on ELL before, so...

1: I had to leave at midnight (where had is often pronounced hat, see this question on ELU)
I was obliged, of necessity, to do so

2: I was to leave at midnight
It had been prearranged (by myself or others) that I would leave at midnight

Perhaps this might make the distinction clearer...

3: I had to leave at midnight, but I decided to stay overnight - INHERENTLY CONTRADICTORY
4: I was to leave at midnight, but I decided to stay overnight - a bit dated / formal, but otherwise fine

So in OP's specific context, if she was to prepare for it then preparing for the test was (hers or someone else's) plan (and maybe things didn't go according to plan), whereas if she had to prepare for it, she had no choice; she must do it, come what may.

  • 4
    Can you elaborate on your parenthetical note, "where had is pronounced hat"? I'm a native AmE speaker, and while I know that I pronounce "had" either as "hed" or "had" depending on location (e.g., "He had had too many drinks" would sound like "He hed had..."), I don't follow your note here. The "had" in "I had to leave at midnight" sounds the same as the "had" in "I had chicken for dinner" to me. Sep 3, 2016 at 22:46
  • 1
    I'm not unfamiliar with those kind of pronunciation shifts (or different words spelled the same way), but had pronounced as hat in this situation (or any) isn't one I'm aware of. Do you happen to have any geographic regions for it? As one point of anecdata, I'm from the northeastern US, and I don't think I pronounce this had as hat. Sep 4, 2016 at 2:48
  • 1
    No, that's just it, I am aware of those and some others (like prolly or even pry for probably), and that I use those too. I'm a couple hundred miles west of where I grew up, and there are plenty of different pronunciations that I do notice (elementTRY/elemenTARY, aunt/ant), and that's why I'm so curious about this one (because it's one I'm not familiar with). Trying to use this pronunciation feels strange to me, whereas many of these kinds of observations are easily confirmed, and right away I realize "oh yes, I do that." Sep 4, 2016 at 3:20
  • 1
    Maybe I'm confused. Hafta, yes, very common — but "hat to", no. And I don't think I said anything about "hafta" or "havta".
    – mattdm
    Sep 4, 2016 at 14:52
  • 1
    No; like Joshua, I'm really quite certain. I don't doubt that people where you are do it differently.
    – mattdm
    Sep 4, 2016 at 15:10

Be to +infinitive usually means that you are supposed or expected to do something.

She was to prepare (was supposed to prepare) for the test.

*Have to + infinitive means that the situation doesn't depend on your wishes.

She had to prepare for the test, she had no choice.


"She was to prepare for the spelling test".

It certainly can be used like that where it is a special use of "be" called "quasi-modal be".

It has some semantic affinities with the modal auxiliaries in that it is used for deontic necessity where it is comparable to "must". And syntactically it resembles them in that it has only a primary form, as well as having all the auxiliary properties such as inversion (was she to prepare for the spelling test?), a negative form (She wasn't to prepare for the spelling test) and so on.


She was to prepare for the spelling test.

She | was | to prepare | for the spelling test.

"was" is past tense; past tense means an action that started and ended before now. This means that in the past she had an upcoming spelling test. We know this because of the infinitive adjective phrase on the other side of the linking verb "was." The phrase, acting like an adjective, modifies the subject "she" to describe something about her--she had to get ready for a spelling test. She was to prepare for it. The adverb prepositional phrase "for the spelling test" simply modifies "prepare" the infinitive verb in the infinitive phrase.

Was. v.

d : to take place : occur



Another way of looking at it, is that English over time might have dropped a word which would have been there originally, and would make sense:

"She was [expected/intended/required] to prepare for..."

I'm not sure if this is historically and technically correct but it 'feels right'.

The current English usage carries this sense, as if the words in brackets are silently present. Perhaps they once were.

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