The Grammarphobia Blog

When ‘to be’ is in question

Q: I’m confused by the use “to be” plus a past participle after a noun, as in this comment about millennials: “They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked.” What purpose does “to be” serve here? The meaning seems the same to me with or without it.

A: The passage you’re asking about is from a tweet by Claire Lehmann, an Australian writer and editor of the online magazine Quillette:

“They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked, and so may have a realist as opposed to romantic view of work.”

In that sentence a passive infinitive (“to be” plus the past participle “raised”) is being used to modify the noun “women.”

Yes, the sentence would make sense with either the passive infinitive or just the past participle: “the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked” versus “the first generation of women raised by mothers who worked.”

However, the two versions convey somewhat different shades of meaning. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, one of the meanings of the verb “be” in the passive infinitive is to express “objective possibility or opportunity.”

The millennials in that example were “to be raised”—their raising was still a future possibility at the time they were born.

So the construction with the passive infinitive means “the first generation of women who could have been raised by mothers who worked” while the construction with just the past participle means “the first generation of women who were raised by mothers who worked.”

We think that tweet is more appropriate with a passive infinitive than with simply the past participle. The millennial generation was the first that could have been raised by mothers who worked; but not all millennial women were actually raised by working mothers.

When the passive infinitive showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it was used to express “necessity, obligation, duty, fitness, or appropriateness,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand a bit, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 (Leviticus 11:13):

“Þees been that ȝe shulen not eete of bryddes, and been to be shoned of ȝow: an Egle & agriffyn” (“These things are the birds that you shall not eat, and are to be shunned by you: an eagle, and a vulture”).

In the early 16th century, writers began using the passive infinitive to express possibility or opportunity—the sense used in the tweet that got your attention. The first OED citation is from The Grete Herball, a 1526 encyclopedia of plants in medicine:

“Apostolycon is a playster or salue so named and is to be had at the poticaries and is specially ordeyned for woundes in the hede.”

Finally, a few words about infinitives.

An infinitive is the bare, most elementary form of a verb (like “raise”), and it may or may not be accompanied by “to,” as wrote on the blog in 2013.

A passive infinitive consists of three elements: “to” + a form of the verb “be” + a past participle (the simple past tense of a verb), as in “to be raised.”

And the passive perfect infinitive consists of “to” + “have been” + past participle: “to have been raised.”

Any of these, or a past participle alone, can modify a preceding noun. Here are examples.

past participle: “a child raised”;

infinitive: “a child to raise”;

passive infinitive: “a child to be raised”;

passive perfect infinitive: “a child to have been raised.”

The differences between some of these can be subtle.

In many cases, you can modify a noun with either an ordinary infinitive (“there is work to do”) or a passive infinitive (“there is work to be done”).

Both indicate uncompleted work, though the first emphasizes the work and the second emphasizes the doing of it.

Besides that, the passive infinitive may be more literary-sounding. Sherlock Holmes might say, “Quick, Watson! There is work to be done,” instead of the more prosaic “work to do.”

Infinitives are used to modify adjectives as well as nouns. And here again, the type of infinitive used can slightly influence the meaning.

There’s a difference in emphasis between “he is eager to go” (infinitive) and “he is eager to be gone” (passive infinitive). The first stresses the going; the second stresses the state of being gone—he’s eager not just “to go” but to be elsewhere.

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