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Example Sentence:

They believed the bridge was constructed badly. ⇒ The bridge was believed to [be/have been] constructed badly.

Which should I use in this case, "to be" or "to have been"?

I found different answers from different sources and was taught differently by different teachers.

Some say that if event reported in question uses any form of the past, one should use the perfect to-infinitive, aka. the present perfect. This is a source I found which supports this rule, and my school did as well as this was a question on a test; to which the answer was "to have been"

On the other hand, some teachers taught me that if the event and the reporting happened in the same time frame or the event reported happened later than the reporting act (as this sentence clearly demonstrates since both clauses are in the same tense — the past simple), one should use the present to-infinitive, aka. the unconjugated present simple; in this case "to be". An example of this is a YouTube Video I found aimed at Russian viewers learning English.

So which is it should I use (note that I was taught differently by different teachers rather than relying solely on the Internet)? And is there a rule that I can use the next time I encounter these types of questions? I have always wondered about this but couldn't get one definitive answer. Any and all answers would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a lot in advance!

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    Your terminology is confusing. For example, "simple" is often contrasted with "perfect", but you use "simple" to describe "to have been", which is in the perfect aspect. You also say that "to be" is in "the present perfect", but there is nothing perfect about it. There are some other issues, too; I think that you need to go through this question and make sure that you are using the right terms. If you do so, then I think it will be easier for people to answer it. Dec 5, 2021 at 16:35
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    @MarcInManhattan you are correct, their positions should have been the opposite! Dec 6, 2021 at 6:04
  • Please delete the duplicate question over at ELU. It's not allowed to post the same question in two Stackexchange sites. Dec 6, 2021 at 17:36
  • Cross-posting is frowned upon, especially if you post the exact same question.
    – Glorfindel
    Dec 8, 2021 at 7:13

4 Answers 4

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cruthers@ answer does an excellent job describing the nuances of these two options; but I don't think it answers your overall question, so I will try to do so here.

On the other hand, some teachers taught me that if the event and the reporting happened in the same time frame or the event reported happened later than the reporting act (as this sentence clearly demonstrates since both clauses are in the same tense — the past simple), one should use the present to-infinitive, aka. the unconjugated present simple; in this case "to be". An example of this is a YouTube Video I found aimed at Russian viewers learning English.

Yes: this is the standard rule, and the one that most native speakers follow.

Some say that if event reported in question uses any form of the past, one should use the perfect to-infinitive, aka. the present perfect.

Those people are wrong. See, for example, this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing "was believed to be" to "was believed to have been"; the former is more than six times as common. (And most instances of the latter are probably following the standard rule, using the perfect because the belief relates to a prior event.)

This is a source I found which supports this rule, […]

That source does not support that rule. Either the source has been updated since you posted your question, or you misunderstood something.

[…] and my school did as well as this was a question on a test; to which the answer was "to have been"

I think your school messed up this answer; but it's an understandable mistake, for two reasons:

  1. For the reasons cruthers@ gives, the version with "to have been constructed badly" is actually a better sentence than the version with "to be constructed badly". The problem is that the version with "to have been constructed badly" doesn't correspond to the original sentence.
  2. It's not actually a serious error to use the perfect infinitive instead of the present infinitive in this sort of sentence. It's definitely not the most standard or most common form, and your school shouldn't be teaching it as the preferred form; but it's the sort of mistake that even a native speaker might occasionally make and not notice.

Either way, you shouldn't conclude from this one example that your school endorses a general rule of using the perfect infinitive in this sort of sentence; it seems very likely to me that it was just a one-off mistake.


The following sentences are semantically equivalent, except that some of them indicate who had the belief and some do not:

  • They believed [that] the bridge was constructed badly.
  • It was believed that the bridge was constructed badly.
  • They believed the bridge to be constructed badly.
  • The bridge was believed to be constructed badly.

The following are equivalent to the above, except that they describe a situation right now instead of a situation in the past:

  • They believe [that] the bridge is constructed badly.
  • It is believed that the bridge is constructed badly.
  • They believe the bridge to be constructed badly.
  • The bridge is believed to be constructed badly.

The following are equivalent to the first set above, except that they're using "be constructed" as a true passive voice (referring to the event of the bridge's construction) rather than an adjectival passive (describing a characteristic of the resulting bridge):

  • They believed [that] the bridge had been constructed badly.
  • It was believed that the bridge had been constructed badly.
  • They believed the bridge to have been constructed badly.
  • The bridge was believed to have been constructed badly.

And the following are equivalent to the above, except that they describe a situation right now instead of a situation in the past:

  • They believe [that] the bridge was constructed badly.
  • It is believed that the bridge was constructed badly.
  • They believe the bridge to have been constructed badly.
  • The bridge is believed to have been constructed badly.

A few notes:

  • For the first two sets of sentences, "badly constructed" would be more idiomatic than "constructed badly", for the reason that cruthers@ explains.
  • Although both "believe that [subject] [finite verb]" and "believe [object] to [infinitive]" are possible, the same is not true with some other similar verbs, such as say. For example, we would never rephrase "They said that the bridge was badly constructed" as *"They said the bridge to be badly constructed", even though the passive voice "The bridge was said to be badly constructed" is fine.
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  • This should really be the accepted answer! Jun 20, 2023 at 0:22
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My reaction is that both ways can potentially work, although they have different meanings. Depending on the context, the difference in meaning might be unimportant. To wit:

The bridge was believed to be constructed badly.

This means that the people who held the belief were thinking about a bridge that exists in the present. They believed that it was a lousy bridge - i.e. that it had been constructed badly, and still exists in this badly-constructed state. After some thought, I actually think that replacing "constructed badly" with "badly constructed" would sound better here - it gives it more of an adjectival feel - but "constructed badly" doesn't stand out to me as noticeably wrong.

The bridge was believed to have been constructed badly.

In this example, the people believe that a certain event took place in the past - specifically, that the bridge was constructed badly. Perhaps the bridge is gone now - maybe it indeed collapsed. If that's the case, this is definitely the preferred phrasing, because the first phrasing suggests to me that the bridge still exists. On the other hand, there is no implication here that the bridge is necessarily gone. Perhaps the bridge was constructed badly, and remains in its badly-constructed state. So this phrasing can cover both cases.

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  • Another example with "is" in case it helps clarify. "The man is believed to be badly beat up." This means that the belief is that the man was beat up in the recent past and is currently still in a "beat up" condition - i.e. he has bruises, broken bones, whatever. "The man is believed to have been badly beat up" means people believe he was beat up in the past (when, exactly, would have to be inferred from context) without saying anything about whether or not he is still in the beat-up condition.
    – cruthers
    Dec 6, 2021 at 17:57
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Which should I use in this case, "to be" or "to have been"?

What you're supposed to do is match the aspect (whether or not you use perfect construction) of the original sentence.

You've got a challenging sentence to flip into passive voice, because it has an implied "that ..." phrase.

I think this is what you're supposed to do for your original sentence.

They believed [that] the bridge was constructed badly. ⇒ That the bridge was constructed badly was believed by them

Perfect construction example:

They believed [that] the bridge had been constructed badly. ⇒ That the bridge had been constructed badly was believed by them.

I think the above is technically correct but kinda clunky. It's OK to do this:

What was believed by them is that the bridge (was / has been) constructed badly.

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I would use "to have been badly constructed," because I like to match tenses. But plenty of people would say "to be badly constructed," so if I were grading an exam with this question, I wouldn't take points off either way.

In a trial, in court, if an attorney wants to ask precise questions of a witness, in which the time frame for the opinion matters, the attorney will set up the context and the time frame carefully, and will not rely solely on the choice of tense because so many people, in practice, would use these two versions interchangeably.

In other words, I disagree with @cruthers.

I haven't got any sources for you other than my ear, sorry -- but I hope this is helpful.

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