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Could you tell me if there is any difference in meaning between who is to do something and who is going to do something in rhetorical questions? For example:

Who is to look after my plants when Nadia is gone?

Who is going to look after my plants when Nadia is gone?

By both sentence I mean that when Nadia goes to live somewhere else, nobody is going to look after my plants? Do both have exactly the same meaning?

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  • "when Nadia is gone" if we talk about one woman Jan 8, 2021 at 14:10

2 Answers 2

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Who is to look after my plants when Nadia is gone?

means that someone has been or will be appointed/assigned the job of looking after your plants, but you just don't know who it is. For the meaning you wish to express, this sentence is not appropriate.

Who is going to look after my plants when Nadia is gone?

is indeed a rhetorical question and expresses more a cry for help, anxiety that no one will look after your plants. The same could be expressed by

Who will look after my plants?

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  • "has been appointed/assigned" - or is about to be appointed as in "Who is to look after my plants when Nadia is gone? Let's see..." Jan 8, 2021 at 14:33
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    Could be both, couldn't it? I can edit and add the future possibility. Thank you for pointing this out.
    – fev
    Jan 8, 2021 at 14:35
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The difference is very subtle, and most native speakers won't understand any difference between them unless they stop to think about it; the first may also be seen as a touch old-fashioned. The first has an implication that you are not sure that the work will be done at all, in the second you are more confident that it will be done you just don't know who by.

(Also, it's not what you asked, but it should be "when Nadia is gone" as Nadia is singular; and "when Nadia goes to live somewhere else" likewise)

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  • To me the former somehow sounds more imperative, and that the speaker strongly believes that the plants must/should be watered... Jan 8, 2021 at 14:32
  • "Who is to... " asks who is responsible for a task.
    – JavaLatte
    Mar 22, 2022 at 12:51

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