I came across this task during my exam.

Ted Sanford was born nine minutes later than his brother Harry. It was his twin brother, Harry, who was (supposed/thought) to become an earl, to inherit a castle in Scotland.

I had a feeling that supposed was the right answer and it was indeed, but I can't explain to myself why thought isn't correct. Could you, please, help me with that?

I think this is in passive voice because here it is said that constructions with 'supposed' belong to Passive Voice. https://learn-english.wonderhowto.com/how-to/use-passive-voice-supposed-english-234202/


3 Answers 3


1: Harry was supposed to become an earl
It was intended that Harry should become an earl

This is a special use of the verb to suppose that only occurs in passive contexts (where the actual "agent" doing the "supposing" is unspecified). But hopefully you can see how the more common meaning to suppose = assume / think / guess stretches through to expect to anticipate / plan for / intend [that something will happen, or be true].

Note that...

2: Harry was thought to become an earl

...doesn't really make sense at the semantic level, but if we change become to plain be it would mean that (unspecified) people believed / were under the impression that Harry actually was an earl. Note that exactly the same substitution wouldn't make any difference to the meaning of the supposed version as given above.

EDIT: I just realized there are perfectly ordinary contexts where the superficially "unusual" syntactic structure in #2 above is unexceptional. For example...

3: Hay lying on the ground was thought to become poisonous
4: ...men were thought to become wolves
5: ...patients were thought to become unnecessarily institutionalized

So perhaps Harry was a fervent socialist who claimed that he always adopted a free "peasant" persona when playing online games set in medieval Arthurian England. Peasants would be at a disadvantage in those games, because they'd have limited resources, but players could pay for a more powerful persona (a squire or a knight, for example). Harry boasted that even though he could afford to pay, he was virtuously "handicapping" himself to show solidarity with the working classes throughout the ages. But some of his friends suspected Harry was lying, and that he didn't become a peasant in the virtual world. In fact, Harry was thought to become an earl (some thought maybe he even paid enough to become King Arthur himself! :)

  • Verbs expressing likelihood are modals: dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/… Well explained as a shift in modality by Cerberus in ELU:english.stackexchange.com/questions/21706/…
    – Lambie
    Jun 3, 2019 at 18:06
  • Thanks for you reply:) Is there any chance for non-native speaker to understand ‘thought to be’ semantic inadequacy in this context? I mean, is there any rule or dirty tip that could be used to eliminate ‘thought’ option in that context? Jun 3, 2019 at 18:14
  • @VladimirNazarenko Yes: He was supposed to be an earl=expected to be. He was thought to be an earl.=We were not sure that he was an earl at some point in the past. to be thought to be means: the speaker is not sure of whether the complement is in fact true.
    – Lambie
    Jun 3, 2019 at 18:21
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    @FumbleFingers You're what I call a perfect teacher! You made it clear for me with your hillarious example:) I can't thank you enough. You contribute a lot to my love for StackExchange! Jun 4, 2019 at 8:06
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    @VladimirNazarenko: Thank you for the kind words. You may have stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest regarding the question of whether this particular usage should be classified as "passive". I don't really think arguments about terminology should be important for most people using ELL, but I find it kinda flattering that retired linguistics professor John Lawler has decided to pitch in here. I look forward to chewing over his answer below (as soon as I've posted this comment), and I suspect that very likely I'll end up learning as much as you from this web page! Jun 4, 2019 at 11:54

Like be used to, be supposed to is an idiom that has become a fixed phrase, and in many speakers' minds and voices, single words -- useta and sposta, with their own individual and very idiomatic syntax.

This is new syntax. In both of these constructions, the question of whether it's passive or active is irrelevant, since that's entirely a matter of definition and metaphoric projection of "active" and "passive", neither of which is relevant to the grammar or meaning of the construction. That kind of pilpul can go on ad lib for years.

As for your exam question, supposed to (pronounced /'spostə/) is the correct answer because it is idiomatic, whereas thought to isn't. Both are grammatical, but exam questions rarely have anything to do with that.

  • As this answer to my own question about this usage over on ELU some years ago points out, there is a tendency in many languages for words to shift in meaning between probability and desirability. As I get older and more cynical, I find myself increasingly thinking that deliberate concealment / obfuscation [of meaning] can be a significant factor in how languages are used, and how they evolve. This principle seems particularly relevant to slang/cant dialects, as well as contexts involving expectations, desires, promises, etc. Jun 4, 2019 at 12:44
  • "supposed to (pronounced /'spostə/)" While I do hear that pronunciation I think of it as careless, and I hear a fuller pronunciation with three syllables and two distinct words more often. Jun 4, 2019 at 13:23
  • Thank you a lot:) I really appreciate your help. That's very important for me to go deeper into the topic, so your reasoning and speculations are of a great value. Jun 4, 2019 at 13:41

"supposed to become" is correct, and as the answer by FumbleFingers explains, means "was intended to become". However, the statement that "This is a special use of the verb to suppose that only occurs in passive contexts" is not correct. It can be used in the active voice as well:

  • I am supposed to prepare the food before I pour the drinks.
  • You are supposed to enter the study only when requested.
  • Jane was supposed to have the analysis done by Thursday.
  • The company is supposed to mention your right to sue on every statement.
  • I disagree that your examples are somehow "active". They're all exactly the same passive structure (as regards the syntax and meaning of [be] supposed to) as OP's and my own. See this answer to an earlier question about the usage, which concedes immediately that supposed is indeed a past participle, and am supposed is a passive. The fact that it's "counter-intuitive" to derive the idiomatic passive meaning from what (active) to suppose normally means just makes that an unhelpful approach for semantic deconstruction. Jun 3, 2019 at 23:01
  • @FumbleFingers I cannot agree that "I am supposed to" is a passive construction. The grammatical subject "I" is also the actor, which is about as clear a definition of an active construction as there is. That this may have arisen through a passive form, if it did, is not relevant, nor does "supposed" really function as a past participle in this form. Jun 3, 2019 at 23:08
  • Concepts and terminologies change over time, and vary across communities, so we may effectively be arguing at the level of "You say tomato, I say potato" (or whatever). The remnants of the linguist in me today wants to see these things in terms of "agent" and "patient", but nobody thought like that 50 years ago when I actually studied linguistics. Whatever - I might ask what others think about this over on ELU tomorrow, just to see if there's anything like a consensus. (Which may or may not include me, and/or I might change my mind anyway, I dunno! :) Jun 3, 2019 at 23:38
  • @FumbleFingers Fair enough. And I think we agree on the actual usage, even if we do not agree on the terminology. How to use English well matters more than whether we call something ;'active" or passive" although labels are needed for analysis. I will be interested in any consensus that develops. Jun 3, 2019 at 23:44
  • Okay, well we've tempted @JohnLawler out of "semi-retirement" to weigh in on this one, and I think I've seen enough now to conclude that there's little point in trying to shoehorn oddball usages like this into the standard terminological framework. But I'm still not clear as to why you think your examples could be classified as "active" and by implication OP's as "passive". Regardless of what we call it, what exactly is the difference? They look pretty much the same to me. Do you see a syntactic difference, or is it a matter of semantics? Jun 4, 2019 at 12:15

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