I stuck at page 338, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Here's an excerpt,

Certainty adjective controlling subject-to-subject raising

1.[The government] is unlikely to meet the full cost.

. . . This meaning relationship becomes explicit if we paraphrase the structure with an equivalent that-clause. Two constructions are possible

1.a. That the government will meet the full cost is unlikely.

1.b. It is unlikely that the government will meet the full cost.

I don't understand the presence of will here, why is to meet.. rephrased to will meet... Does to refer to a future event?

  • the word "to" does not reflect tense. The words you use around it do. I will go to the store. I went to the store. I am on my way/going to the store now. "Will" in this example means in the future -- you are going to do something -- either very soon or even later. "I will do that." It means I am not doing it yet but may (or not) start immediately -- as soon as the close future.
    – WRX
    Mar 14, 2017 at 14:14
  • @Willow Thanks for the response. But I don't get what you mean by words around. I understand that an example like going to.. can indicate future event. But in this example, I can find any clue that mark the futurity. Btw, if you have enough information, why not post an answer :) Mar 14, 2017 at 14:22
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    I doubt my info is answer-worthy because I don't understand the grammar. The words around means the other words (not the word 'to') tell you whether the writer means the past, present, or future. In your example "unlikely" means probably will be unable to/refuse to reach the cost in the future.
    – WRX
    Mar 14, 2017 at 14:29

4 Answers 4


This is not really about the word to or the verb meet. Rather, the phrase is unlikely combined with a to-infinitive (in this case, "to meet") tells us that the action of the infinitive verb will probably not happen in the future.

The words likely and unlikely are about how certain we are about something happening in the future. From Cambridge Dictionary's English Grammar Today1:

Likely and unlikely are adjectives. We use them to say that something will probably happen or not happen in the future. We can use them before a noun, or with the verbs be, seem and appear . . . . We can follow likely or unlikely by a verb in the to-infinitive form:

The economy is likely to recover slowly after the long recession.
Are you likely to want this cardboard box or shall I throw it out?
The weather seems unlikely to change over the next few days.

As noted in this explanation, if we say an event is [un]likely we are talking about how certain we are that the event will happen in the future. So in your example,

[The government] is unlikely to meet the full cost.

the sentence is talking about how confident we are now that the government will pay for the whole thing at some time in the future.

Note that if we used a different tense of the verb with unlikely, we could have a different meaning:

[The government] seemed unlikely to meet the full cost.

In this case, we've paired unlikely with the past tense of the verb "seem", so the sentence means that sometime in the past it looked like the government would be unable to pay. In that case, the expected failure to pay was at some time in the future of the time of "seeming" but not necessarily later than now. To make this clearer we can add a bit of context:

Ten years ago, the government seemed unlikely to meet the full cost. However, there was very strong public support for the project, so a few years later the government promised to fund the entire project, and by last year it was completely paid for.

Similarly, we can use different infinitive verbs with these same likely and unlikely structures:

The government is unlikely to surrender. The government seems likely to raise taxes soon. Last year, the government appeared likely to lower interest rates.

You can read more about the use of likely and unlikely in the article linked above.


As was pointed out in comments, unlikely can be paired with other forms of infinitive besides the simple infinitive (e.g. the continuous—is unlikely to be meeting—and so forth) which of course changes the meaning. As usual, the infinitive in this case takes its tense from the verb that precedes it, and contributes aspect—the relationship in time between the action of the preceding verb and the infinitive verb.

The key issue here is that the usual temporal relationship for simple to-infinitives is changed when we add likely or unlikely. With the simple infinitive, ordinarily the action of the infinitive and the action of the tensed verb are understood to happen at the same time. With (un)likely, however, the infinitive's action is shifted to happen after the tensed verb. Compare:

They seem happy to see me (Seeming happy and seeing me are both happening in the present); and
They seemed happy to see me (Seeming happy and seeing me both happened in the past)


They seem likely to see me (Seeming likely is happening in the present, but seeing me hasn't happened yet—it probably will happen in the future, but might not); and
They seemed likely to see me (Seeming likely happened in the past, and seeing me was then expected to happen at some time later than that—possibly a less-distant past, possibly the present, possibly still in the future).

With other forms of infinitive the relationship is more complicated, and outside of the scope of this Q&A, but generally the "action" that is shifted forward is finding out the truth or falsity of the infinitive.

I am happy to have met him. (Happiness is in the present; meeting him is in the past.)


I am likely to have met him. (Likeliness is in the present; meeting him or not is in the past; and finding out whether meeting him happened is in the future.)

You can learn more about the different aspects of infinitives in the Grammaring article linked above, or your favorite English grammar source.

1 Markdown formatting added; sorry it's so ugly, but I couldn't think of a better way of adding emphasis when the original is already using italics and bolding.

  • Although StoneyB's answer has more upvotes, I accept this answer because I certainly agree with it. Mar 15, 2017 at 2:58
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    But how do you account for uses like "He is unlikely to be available now" (reference to present state) and "He is unlikely to have finished already" (reference to present derived from past eventuality)? Mar 15, 2017 at 14:42

What is involved here is the lexical aspect of the verb meet.

Meet in this sense has a specific sort of time structure 'built in' to its meaning. It's what we call an "achievement" verb: it designates a point in time at which a goal—a change of state—occurs. There may be a more or less extended period during which you are working toward a goal, but you cannot speak of "meeting" the goal until you have arrived at it. In this particular case, the government cannot be said to "meet" the cost until it has actually paid it out. A single event designated by meet thus has no "present tense": at any given point in time the government either "has met" a specific goal already or "will meet" that goal in the future.

Consequently, in this context we understand an infinitive to meet to refer to a future event:

The government is unlikely to meet the cost = It is unlikely that the government will meet the cost.

If we want to refer to a past event, we employ the infinitive perfect:

The government is unlikely to have met the cost... = (The numbers haven't been published yet, but) it is unlikely that government has met the cost.

Some linguists use the German term Aktionsart for this. There is a brief discussion of aspect here.

Of course the verb can be cast in the present or present progressive form; but these constructions designate the repeated occurrence of meet events over time, not the occurrence of a single meet event.

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    Isn't it the phrase is unlikely that tells us this particular attempt to meet is in the future? If we had the sentence The government was unable to meet the cost we would understand the attempt to have happened in the past.
    – 1006a
    Mar 14, 2017 at 14:44
  • @user178049 It's both: the semantics elicit the syntax. Mar 14, 2017 at 14:54
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    Rather, I'd have thought this was a general form. Can you give a counter example with go or sumsuch, eg. "I am unlikely to visit the concert", although I can be visiting.
    – Hector von
    Mar 14, 2017 at 15:47
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    @Hectorvon Consider the use with statives, where the infinitive readily accommodates a present time reference: "John is unlikely to know enough French to translate this", "She's unlikely to be at school now". Mar 14, 2017 at 15:57
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    @Hectorvon Go is complicated, because its aspect is even more contingent on context than most verbs. Telic go may be interpreted as an achievement (go to London) or an accomplishment (go all the way to London), and the infinitive will usually have a future interpretation, but atelic go is an activity (go faster than 30 mph) and the infinitive will usually have a present interpretation. Mar 14, 2017 at 17:26

Any verb, not merely "meet," as the target of the infinitive "to" merely describes some sort of action. "To wash," "to eat," "to apologize" are all other constructs that would fall in the same vein. I can convey future, present, and past with the exact same infinitive, to-wit:

"I chose to eat apples yesterday."
"I choose to wash my car today."
"I will choose to apologize on Saturday."

In each case, the infinitive structure is the same - the verbs precedent determine the tense, not the infinitive "to."

When recast as in the original examples, the infinitive is being changed specifically to express tense (future or future perfect, eg will meet or will have met). Similar recharacterization would apply for the other examples, eg "Today, he will wash his car.", or "Yesterday, he ate apples."


Yes and no. The "to" itself just marks it as the infinitive of the following verb, but the construct of the larger phrase can give it a future (or other) tense.

English has infinitive constructions which are marked (periphrastically) for aspect: perfect, progressive (continuous), or a combination of the two (perfect progressive). These can also be marked for passive voice (as can the plain infinitive):

(to) eat (plain infinitive, active)
(to) be eaten (passive)
(to) have eaten (perfect active)
(to) have been eaten (perfect passive)
(to) be eating (progressive active)
(to) be being eaten (progressive passive)
(to) have been eating (perfect progressive active)
(to) have been being eaten (perfect progressive passive, not often used)

Further constructions can be made with other auxiliary-like expressions, like (to) be going to eat or (to) be about to eat, which have future meaning. For more examples of the above types of construction, see Uses of English verb forms § Perfect and progressive non-finite constructions.

Being a verb, an infinitive may take objects and other complements and modifiers to form a verb phrase (called an infinitive phrase). Like other non-finite verb forms (like participles, converbs, gerunds and gerundives) infinitives do not generally have an expressed subject; thus an infinitive verb phrase also constitutes a complete non-finite clause, called an infinitive (infinitival) clause. Such phrases or clauses may play a variety of roles within sentences, often being nouns (for example being the subject of a sentence or being a complement of another verb), and sometimes being adverbs or other types of modifier. Many verb forms known as infinitives differ from gerunds (verbal nouns) in that they do not inflect for case or occur in adpositional phrases. Instead, infinitives often originate in earlier inflectional forms of verbal nouns.1 Unlike finite verbs, infinitives are not usually inflected for tense, person, etc. either, although some degree of inflection sometimes occurs; for example Latin has distinct active and passive infinitives.

Emphasis mine, source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinitive#Uses_of_the_infinitive The page also has more examples and explains the treatment of infinitives in some other languages, which may help the OP relate if their own first language is among them.

This particular construction seems to be analogous to the "going-to" future tense, so you need the phrase "unlikely to" to indicate the future tense, just "to" is not sufficient.

The going-to future is a grammatical construction used in English to refer to various types of future occurrences. It is made using appropriate forms of the expression to be going to.1 It is an alternative to other ways of referring to the future in English, such as the future construction formed with will (or shall) – in some contexts the different constructions are interchangeable, while in others they carry somewhat different implications.


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