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It got me thinking how English speakers realize and distinguish the meaning of this strange verb in such sentences like the one mentioned below.

He produced a hand-written list of nine poor families, he was supposed to help.

I know all the various and possible meanings of 'be supposed to' as explained in reference thesauruses and dictionaries. But I think amongst all of them, these two meanings are both applicable and understood from the sentence once you read or hear it.

  1. To be expected to
  2. To be meant to / to be aimed to / to be intended to

About the first one imagine a rich, Generous and merciful guy who usually and repeatedly helps others who need and those poor families expect him to come by and help them.

About the second one imagine a guy who had planned to help the poor families for the first time only because of some religious occasion or personal reasons.

So how do i know which one is meant?

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    The comma in the original sentence shouldn't be there, and makes the sentence harder to read. In any case, I don't actually see much of a difference between the two meanings in this case. Nothing about any of the meanings implies anything like "usually and repeatedly" or "for the first time". – stangdon Dec 31 '16 at 0:00
  • Are you asking about the difference in meaning between "expectation" and "obligation" for "supposed to"? – Peter Dec 31 '16 at 0:02
  • @stangdon It's not about the repetition of the verb. I would like to know whether it's about the expectation or need of others that forces him to do it, or the intention/plan of himself . – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:08
  • @Peter expectation vs intention to do and how you know which one is meant here? – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:10
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    @YazdanSamieiPoor - That's the point; there is no difference about "expectation or need of others" vs. "intention of himself". I think you're imagining a difference that isn't there. – stangdon Dec 31 '16 at 15:11
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As stangdon mentions in his comment, the comma in your example is anomalous and changes the meaning of the sentence. It should be:

He produced a hand-written list of nine poor families (that) he was supposed to help.

"Supposed to", in most cases, implies an obligation of some kind. However it might also imply that is it something he intends to do (in the near future). Both definitions are included in one verb.

Naturally this can be confusing even for native speakers, so we have to ask questions to clear up any ambiguity:

"I'm supposed to stay at my grandparent's house for the holidays."
"So, are you going?"
"I don't want to. I'd rather hang out here ... but if I don't go they'll be upset"

In this case it's not clear if the speaker actually intends to go or not, but either way his obligation is clear.

Instead of "supposed to", if you really want to remove all ambiguity, use "intend to" or "plan to" or something similar.

He produced a hand-written list of nine families that he said he wanted to help.

He produced a hand-written list of nine families that he intended to help.

  • so it gets the natives confused too. – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:15
  • @YazdanSamieiPoor Well, yes -- but it's one of those words that has some deliberate ambiguity. Ambiguous words are nice because, for all kinds of reasons, they allow you to say something but not necessarily mean it. I'm sure there are plenty of similar examples in your own language :) – Andrew Dec 31 '16 at 0:17
  • Of course, there are. But it's more confusing for a foreign non-native learner ;) – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:22
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Neither of your definitions

To be expected to
To be meant to / to be aimed to / to be intended to

implies motivation, however both speak to expectation, whether one's own or other's.

In possible order of decreasing obligation

that he said he should help. (possibly mandated morally)
that he said he was supposed to help. (mandated externally)
that he said he wanted to help. (desire)

The only way to know the motivation is further context

He did it because he was taught he should.
He helped the poor because the Bible (for example) says he is supposed to help.

In some contexts we can guess the meaning, because of our experience and cultural understanding

The children are supposed to come home for the holidays.

would mean that it's planned and there is an obligation (which many people often feel is a burden given the travel hassle). Without further context, it might be more explicitly said as

He meant to
He intends to

versus

He is expected to

in place of "is supposed to", if no other context is being mentioned and you want to be clear about intent.

  • But it's noted in the dictionaries as you can check in this link : collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/… – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:19
  • Yes, your link is about expectation, something was planned, so it is expected to happen, but we do not know why it is supposed to happen. In your example, we do not know why "he is supposed to help the poor", it could be religious, it could be the suffering of the poor, etc... "that he said he was supposed to help" is either an external expectation of society or friends or the "he's" personal expectation, but why needs to be stated in order to fully understand. – Peter Dec 31 '16 at 0:27
  • By the way, I'm not focusing on motivation. I'm focusing on intention of himself against expectation of others. – Yazdan Samiei Poor Dec 31 '16 at 0:29
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    I think it would be more explicitly said as "He meant to", "He intends to" vs "He is expected to" in place of "is supposed to" if no other context being mentioned and you want to be clear about intent. – Peter Dec 31 '16 at 0:44

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