Use of "were to" in English grammar



The Prime Minister said: "I have indicated in opening remarks that I do not intend to be Prime Ministerial candidate if the UPA were to come to power after the general elections.

BJP leader Narendra Modi will prove to be "disastrous" for India if he were to become the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.

What does the use of were to in above sentences indicate? If I don't use were to, does it then mean something different? Or can I use only were instead?


Posted 2014-01-03T12:09:38.800

Reputation: 131



The expression BE to VERB has slightly different meanings in indicative and hypothetical contexts.

In indicative contexts it means BE expected to VERB or BE scheduled to VERB in the future

I am to see the doctor on Wednesday. = I have an appointment with the doctor for Wednesday.

He was to become the next CEO, but retired before that could happen. = It was planned that he would become the next CEO, but ...

In hypothetical contexts, where we employ the past form of a verb uninflected for person to indicate contingency or unreality, BE to VERB loses the sense of expectation or scheduling; it is simply an alternative to the bare past form of VERB. It is slightly more formal than that bare past form, and slightly more strongly marked for hypotheticality—probably because it is a longer form than the bare past. But these two sentences are semantically equivalent:

If I were to say what I think I would be fired.
If I said what I think I would be fired.

Your examples are tricky. Strictly speaking, from a 'western English' perspective, they are ungrammatical: in both sentences, the PM combines hypothetical forms were to become/come in the IF clauses with indicative forms do not intend/will prove to be in the THEN clauses.

I take it that in the first sentence, at least, where the PM is quoted directly, this awkwardness arises because he is speaking off-the-cuff and improvising the proper expression of a firm intention or prediction concerning an event, the future elections, whose outcome is entirely hypothetical. In the second the mistake may be the PM's or it may be that of the journalist who is paraphrasing him.

But I cannot rule out the possibility that Indian English—and specifically Indian Political English—has evolved this usage of were to precisely in order to express firmness and caution in the same utterance. Perhaps our Indian readers could speak to this.

This use is called subjunctive in traditional grammar.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2014-01-03T12:09:38.800

Reputation: 176 469

I'm a Pacific Northwest American English speaker and I disagree that "from a 'western English' perspective, they are ungrammatical". Both of these seem fine to me (although the first is missing the article for "Prime Ministerial candidate"). I also don't understand exactly why you think they are prescriptively ungrammatical. – dantiston – 2015-03-18T23:49:18.010

@dantiston I use 'western English' (in quotes) to distinguish the Anglo-American dialects from those developing in the 'east'. In conditional clauses, the formal dialect requires that the protasis and apodosis have the same realis or irrealis mode. Some verbforms swing both ways, especially the past-form modals, but in OP's examples, if he were and if UPA were are unambiguously irrealis while I intend and he will are unambiguously realis. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2015-03-19T00:02:58.920