Don't understand what this structure about (IF THAT WAS TO BE)

If that was to be the basis for denying a right that was the norm elsewhere, then substantive evidence of non-performance should be made available

If that was to be the case then the question was a simple one: who would be responsible for paying those arrears?

Thanks in advance

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    Taking just your first example, the first "be" (i.e. "was") is used here as a 'modal preterite' in a remote conditional clause. The second "be" is head of the subordinate non-finite clause "to be the basis for ..." which is functioning as predicative complement of the first "be" in its specifying sense. We understand that "substantive evidence ... of non-performance should be made available if the the antecedent of "that" = "the basis for denying a right ..." – BillJ Feb 26 '17 at 19:55
  • thank you, Bill, for your explanation. I'm going to learn and elaborate its details – Max Feb 27 '17 at 0:24
  • @BillJ There is no doubt that it is a copular verb, but be is a non-modal auxiliary verb. I don't think it's 'modal preterite'. Please correct me if I'm wrong. – Man_From_India Jun 6 '17 at 1:55
  • @Man_From_India It's a modal preterite because the meaning has to do with modality rather than past time. It could be replaced by present tense "is", but that would weaken the modal remoteness meaning of the conditional if clause. You could also use the formal irrealis "were" to express an even greater degree of modality: "If that were to be ...". We use modal preterites regularly; consider also "If he was in love with her, he'd go". Again, this use of past tense "was" instead of present tense "is" has nothing to with past time, but modality, and hence is referred to as a 'modal preterite'. – BillJ Jun 6 '17 at 6:30
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    It's the difference between saying "If he loved her, he'd marry her " (past tense) and "If he loves her", he'd marry her (present tense). They both refer to present time, but the first one has past tense "loved", even though the meaning is not past time, so we call it a 'modal preterite'. We typically use the past tense (modal preterite) in conditional if clauses. – BillJ Jun 6 '17 at 15:30

This construction is used to talk about things which are reasonably expected to happen, most often as the result of a decision. The first "be" verb refers to the expected possibility, the second refers to the expected state of being. This is very correct, very high-style English, but the grammar does not make logical sense. Let me explain how this happens.

English speakers do not like dative constructions and do not use them often. For example, if the room temperature is low, they will not say "To me it is cold." They will say "I am cold." The air in the room is cold, but they speak as if their own bodies were cold. This substitution is dictated by the aesthetic rules of English which greatly favor sentences with animate subjects.

The double-be construction is the result of such thinking. Let us start with a dative example:

To me it is to be your guide today.

Though this sentence is perfectly logical and perfectly grammatical, the native speaker will consider it ugly, if he understands it at all. He would say:

I am to be your guide today.

Here he has changed the grammatical subject of the first "to be" verb from the abstract circumstance "it" to the animate "I". Logic has suffered, but aesthetics have been improved.

When you posted the bounty you asked specifically about the difference between "if that was the basis" and "if that was to be the basis". Remember, the double-be construction indicates that something is reasonably expected to be. So, "if that was the basis" is talking about a fact which may or may not have take place in the past. In contrast, "if that was to be the basis" is talking about a reasonable expectation which may or may not have existed in the past. Consider these examples:

You say he was dismissed for theft. If that was the basis for dismissal, why did they not file a report with the police?

Was he dismissed for theft or for some other reason?

You say he was dismissed for smoking. If that was to be a basis for dismissal, why was this not mentioned in the rules of workplace conduct?

Did the employer give employees a reason to expect that they would be dismissed for smoking at work?

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  • Thanks is it equal phrases according to the meaning? If that was to be a basis for dismissal = If that was expected a basis for dismissal – Max Jun 5 '17 at 18:33
  • They are very similar. I would say that the double-be construction suggests a well-founded expectation based on a decision made by a competent party, by fate, or according to principles of equity. For example: "He is to be hanged tommorow." (The court decided.) "That apartment building is to be torn down." (The city planners decided.) "She is to be my wife." (We decided.) "If I am to be defeated, it will not be from want to trying." (Fate may decide.) "All who assisted in cleaning the park are to be praised." (Principles of equity dictate.) I hav edited my answer to make this clearer. – David42 Jun 6 '17 at 15:24

Be [not] to X = someone/something is telling you/expecting you/commanding you/ordering you to [not] X

It can also be used to mean a situation or circumstances strongly suggest X should or needs to happen, or the equivalent of saying "destined to X".

I am to be at home by 3pm. [Someone is requiring me to be at home at 3pm]

She is not to leave your side. [You are commanding the listener/reader to not allow her to leave your side.]

The wall was never to be built because of the landslide.

It was not to be = It was not destined to be (to exist).

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If you are to be a king, you need to look after these people.

Here in this sentence the copular verb - are (auxiliary verb) - takes a non-finite to-infinitive clause (subordinate clause) as its complement. The clause is introduced by a subordinator - to (you can simply call it a infinitive marker). The Noun Phrase - a king - is the complement of the verb - be (main verb in the subordinate clause), and the implied subject of the subordinate clause is you.


1. If you are to be a king, you need to look after these people.

2. If you are a king, you need to look after these people.

In sentence #1, you are not yet a king, but if you are going to be a king you need to look after these people.

In sentence #2, it suggests that you need to look after these people if you are already a king.

If I were a king, I had a palace. (a hypothetical situation)

I am not a king, neither I have a palace. But if I were a king, I had a palace.

You can have the same meaning with the following sentence, but I think this is very rare -

If I were to be a king, I would have a palace.

It can also be considered to be the past form of "if I am to be a king, I will have a palace".

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