What is the meaning of this phrase?

Mr. Jones was to have spoken at the meeting, but we had to cancel it because of his illness.

Does this mean:

  • He was scheduled to speak at the meeting?
  • Someone wanted to speak to him at the meeting?

was to have + past participle means something was supposed to happen but didn't.

was to have + past participle is more elegant and more formal:

He was to have spoken but then cancelled.

He was supposed to speak but then cancelled.

I see no other way to explain this except as a style issue.

"I was to have explained the ideas and then couldn't."

If you work for a company or non-profit organization, you will see that used in writing. It is not old fashioned: it is formal.

And yes, would also be common in academic writing, for example.


Both the tense of the first clause, and the context clues in the second part of the sentence imply that it's your first interpretation: He was scheduled to speak at the meeting. Or more accurately: He was supposed to speak at the meeting.

Here "was to have spoken" is a conditional clause describing what should have happened, while "but we had to cancel it because of his illness" is describing what actually happened.

If the sentence had meant your second interpretation, "Someone wanted to speak to him at the meeting", then the first clause would not have used conditional. Conditional clauses are used to talk about hypothetical situations contrary to what actually happened. The narrator desired (or didn't desire) Mr. Jones to speak regardless of whether he actually did speak, meaning it would have used regular preterite tense (aka regular past tense without constructions like "was to have" or "would have".) Ex. "I wanted Mr. Jones to speak, but we had to cancel it."

  • I got it, much thx. I'm just wondering that, why did the wiriter just use "he was SUPPOSED to speak at the meeting, but we had to cancel it because of his illness" then? Right? Why is that? Is this idiomatic/informal/regional or something to relate to that... – John Arvin Nov 12 '18 at 20:43
  • @JohnArvin It's purely a stylistic choice and definitely not informal. That phrasing is something you'd probably only ever see in formal writing. (even there I personally would choose "would have spoken", as the "was to have spoken" construction sounds stilted to me) In my experience in a conversational setting, 99.9% of the time, you'd be more likely to hear either: "He would've spoken at the meeting, but we had to cancel it...." or "He was supposed to speak at the meeting, but we had to cancel it..." – xgord Nov 12 '18 at 21:03
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    I don't think it's just stylistic: "was to have spoken" means it had been decided on: he was definitely going to speak (until he had to cancel). But "was supposed to speak" can be softer, suggesting it would have been desirable for him to speak but it wasn't arranged. For example, he needed to speak at that meeting to accomplish some goal, but he didn't plan on it because he didn't care about that goal. He was supposed to speak to get me more funding, but he didn't really want to do that for political reasons. – amalloy Nov 12 '18 at 23:34
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    @amalloy I see your distinction, but I disagree. what you're saying about the softness of the obligation definitely applies to the phrase "should have." But although "supposed to" can be used for softer implications, it can also be used for firm obligations. This article indicates that. So I think the phrase works fine in this situation. – xgord Nov 13 '18 at 12:57
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    @JohnArvin I think that's more of an opinion question. To me, the writer sounds overly academic, but people from other places might not agree. This Google ngrams search shows that the popularity of "was to have" seems to be declining (but the validity of this depends on how much faith you have in the diversity of google ngrams' corpus). – xgord Nov 13 '18 at 13:08

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