English as a Second Language/English phrases


Hello Brian,

Please, help me understand the following English phrase:"There was nice work to be done." Unfortunately, I don't quite understand this phrase. Is it about the past and what? Was a work done?  

English is my second language. To understand this phrase, I need to know the work was done or not? Can you rewrite the phrase? For example: Baby wants to be fed. (The mother will feed the baby)

The grammar says:
1. To refer to the present or future we use present simple infinitive.
It is believed that he is a good manager.
He is believed to be a good manager.

2. To refer to an activity in progress at the moment of speaking we use present continuous infinitive.
It is rumoured that inflation is increasing.
Inflation is rumoured to be increasing.

3. To refer to the past we use perfect infinitive.
It is said that they suffered huge losses last year.
They are said to have suffered huge losses last year.

Unfortunately, there is no example, as There was or He was believed or They were said.

I took that phrase from a book, and here is another phrase from a book: "There was a boy to be found." I understand this phrase, as "There was a boy. The missing boy. The boy wasn't found. Somebody should find him. And for now, we don't know about the boy. So, briefly we say there was a boy to be found." Am I right, no?

If not, then how does it work?

Thank you so much!


Hi Alex!

Interesting problem!  You have quite a few questions, so let me see if I can answer them one at a time.

"Is it about the past and what?"

Yes.  The main verb of the sentence (be) is in past tense form (was), so it is a past sentence.

"Was a work done?"

We cannot determine that from the context of the sentence.  The subject verb is "There was" which expresses a state, not an action, so whether the work was done or not is indeterminate.  

"Can you rewrite the phrase?"

Since it is indeterminate, there isn't really an accurate way to rewrite the sentence: the subject is unknown (indeterminate).  The best rephrasing I can think of might be "Work existed to be done."

Your grammar textbook is correct, but incomplete.  As you noticed, however, all of those rules are true IF AND ONLY IF the sentence itself is a present or future sentence.  But the example you gave me was a past sentence, so the rules are slightly different.  In that case, the present simple infinitive refers to an action or state which occurred or occurs or will occur AT THE TIME that the action or state of the main sentence happened.

So, for example,

I am happy to be of service. (being of service is something I am happy about now)
I was happy to be of service. (being of service WAS something I WAS happy about AT A POINT IN THE PAST)
I will be happy to be of service. (being of service IS something I WILL BE happy bout AT A POINT IN THE FUTURE)

So yes, your conclusions about "There was a boy to be found." were correct!  Good job.

Hope that helps!  Feel free to send me a follow up question if you would like something else to be cleared up!

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Brian Connelly


I can answer pretty much any question a student might have about English; about grammar, vocabulary, meanings of words, phrases, expressions or idioms, pronunciation, etc. I can answer questions about how to learn or study English better, how to improve certain aspects of communication (listening, writing, speaking, etc), about why we have certain rules.


I've been teaching English in Japan, mainly as a private (one-to-one) teacher, but also at companies such as Universal Studios or international airports. I have taught professional interpreters and translators and I have also taught students who dropped out of high school and never learned any English. Several years ago I acquired the CELTA and I have been running my own classroom for the past year.

None in particular, but I work with a number of companies who regularly introduce me to new students and occasionally to other companies that are looking for English teachers.


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I currently have approximately 40 individual students with whom I work one on one. I have also worked with local manufacturing companies, colleges, local retailers, as well as Sharp, Universal Studios, Itami International Airport, Kobe International Airport

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