For evidence, investigators pulled from along the driveway a few dozen castor bean plants that they believe were to be the raw material for the biological toxin ricin, which can be fatal if ingested even in small doses.
(The New York Times)

What is the rule governing the presence of to be in the above sentence containing the highlighted phrase?
How does the sentence meaning change after removing to be or were?

  • 2
    You're parsing it wrong: "... [a few dozen castor bean plants] [that they believe] [were to be the raw material for...]" It's not exactly a common sentence structure, probably because it takes a couple of read-throughs to figure out what's going on, but it's not incorrect. – Martha May 31 '13 at 17:19

Stripped to its essentials, OP's sentence is just a more complex variant of...

This is to be decided.
which can be contrasted with...
This is decided.

That's to say, in OP's context, to be means the plants weren't yet being used as raw materials, but the investigators believed they would be at some point in the future.

If you remove to be, the sentence has to be interpreted slightly differently. Without that indicator of "future use", we have to treat the plants that were pulled up as simply representative of castor beans on the site in general - some of which were already being used to make ricin.

If you take out were, that just means that the investigators currently believe the plants were/are involved in production (no particular implication as to whether they believed that at the time of uprooting them).

I should also point out that there are some contexts where to be [verbed] doesn't necessarily imply that the "verbing" will happen in the future. If someone says, for example, "You are to be thanked", they probably mean "I am thanking you right now as I speak" (effectively, "You are being thanked").


I'm not sure of the name of the tense for "were to be" and I couldn't find it in my quick search of grammar sites. But the meaning is of a past plan or intent to do something in the future. Normally the understanding is that this plan was never completed.

"We were to be married in June." Our plan was to get married in June, but for some reason we didn't.

"I was to get the job when Bob retired." The plan was that when Bob retired, I was going to get the job. But then something interfered and I didn't.

This tense is also sometimes expressed with the words "was going to".

"I was going to eat that slice of pizza." My plan was to eat the pizza, but then something happened, like maybe someone else got it first.

It's a complex tense, and the sentence is made a little more confusing because it's combined with "believe", in the present tense. The idea is that the police believe -- present -- that the owners of the plants planned -- past, the plan was ruined when the plants were confiscated -- to use the plants to make ricin -- future.

As to your proposed variations: Well, let me simplify the sentence a little to discuss that. Let's leave out some extraneous stuff and recast it as, "They believe the plants were to be the raw material."

Leave out "to be": "They believe the plants were the raw material." This moves the using of the plants as raw material from a future plan to a past state. That plants were the raw material -- past. There is no future plan, it's already done.

Leave out "were": "They believe the plants to be the raw material." The plants are the raw material in the present.

Another variation perhaps useful to understanding is to leave out "they believe": "The plants were to be the raw material." There was a plan to use the plants as raw material. This makes it a simple statement of fact rather than a belief held by the investigators. (In context, the original sentence is saying that the investigators believed such-and-such to be true, not that it actually was true. The investigators might be mistaken.)

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    "We started dating in January, little knowing that we were to be married in June". Outside of context, that particular verb form has no special implications for whether or not the thing referenced did (or will) actually happen. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 31 '13 at 17:57
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    @ Jay: I'm not big on terminology, but I suspect it's meaningless to ascribe a "tense" to OP's were to be [verbed]. To me, it just looks like Simple Past were followed by an "adjectival" phrase (consisting of infinitive to be plus past participle verbed). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 31 '13 at 21:59

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