The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London

A colleague asked me the other day about the use of the subjunctive in British English. The subjunctive mood is a fairly infrequent feature of American English that finds its way into advanced grammar books and classes. It is used following certain verbs and adjectives that express demands or suggestions, for example:

  • We demand that taxes be lowered
  • The teacher recommended that she study harder.
  • It is essential that the class finish on time.

In the (projected) noun clauses, the verb in the subjunctive mood appears in its base form (like an infinitive without to). This means the subjunctive is only actually visible after third person singular subjects in certain tenses, as well as all passive verbs (be lowered). In other contexts, the subjunctive looks exactly like the indicative (the “normal” mood), so you could use the subjunctive without ever realizing it.

Most grammar books point to an interesting difference between British and American English here: British English no longer uses the subjunctive in this structure. Typically, students are told to use should instead:

  • We recommend that everyone should drink more water.

The question was whether should is always used, especially when the core meaning of this modal verb conflicts with the meaning of the main (introductory) clause. That is, can you require (=insist) that someone should (=ought to, but not essential) do something?

I’ve been playing with the BYU interface to the  British National Corpus to answer this, and the results are a little surprising. These searches were limited to the written section of the BNC.

For example, “it is [=necessary] that he|she|it” (the [=necessary] tells the corpus to include synonyms of necessary, like essential and crucial) is followed by:

  • 5 indicative verbs (is, rests)
  • 1 should
  • 1 subjunctive (comprehend)

However, “[=require] that he|she|it” is followed by:

  • 14 subjunctives
  • 13 indicatives
  • 10 shoulds

And “[=recommend] that he|she|it” takes:

  • 117 indicatives
  • 8 shoulds
  • 5 subjunctives

This suggests that (no subjunctive because suggest is just reporting results not making any imposition on you!):

  • The indicative is more common that should in these structures in British English.
  • The word should probably carries very little of its normal modal meaning in these clauses.
  • The subjunctive does exist in written British English, although it is indeed rare, with the possible exception of verbs of necessity, where it is a little more common.

As ever, there are a few caveats:

  • The BNC does include some American texts, I believe, which I couldn’t filter out. In addition, some of the “academic” corpus could well be drawn from journals that use American English as a standard or at least publish the work of American scholars. This might account for some of the subjunctives.
  • My search only captured clauses using he/she/it. I would need a more sophisticated search to include every possible context for the subjunctive, including passives, and other singular subjects (everyone, something, singular nouns, and proper names).
  • The texts in the BNC are a little old now, so these results may reflect somewhat conservative usage. The present-day use of the subjunctive may be even lower.

If you know how to do these searches, please improve my description!

All of these structures, however, are far less frequent than the grammatically simpler form using a non-finite clause: it’s important to read the directions; I asked him to pass the salt; proofreading your blog posts is essential. So, why do we insist that students use (aha!) it?

No, really, why?

Update (3/1/11): Thanks to Leo Schmitt for featuring this post on TESOL’s Grammatically Speaking!

For more corpus-based grammar tips, watch for my new ESL grammar textbook for graduate students and researchers, coming in 2012 from the University of Michigan Press.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

18 thoughts on “The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London”

  1. Hi Nigel
    I read with interest your piece about the subjunctive, particularly the bit about ‘using the subjunctive without ever realizing it’! To be clear about this: “I insisted that he pay on time” is clearly subjunctive with its use of “pay” instead of “pays”. But if we switch to 3rd person plural: “I insisted that they pay on time”, are you saying that this is also a subjunctive clause even though it looks indicative? If that’s the case, how can tell what the speaker’s/writer’s intentions are – perhaps they mean it to be indicative; perhaps they mean it to be subjunctive – who knows? Or is it the case that this type of clause is always subjunctive by virtue of its structure or its semantics?

    Thanks

    William

  2. William,

    Good question — yes, the clause is still subjunctive even though there is no orthographic or phonological difference between the indicative and subjunctive forms of plural active verbs (except “be”). That is, they’re spelled and pronounced the same.

    The only way you would know it’s subjunctive is by analogy with the same clause with a third-person singular subject — so if it would be subjunctive with “it” then it’s subjunctive with “they” and all other subjects.

    We obviously can’t draw any conclusion about the speaker/writer’s intentions in these cases because there’s no choice to be made between indicative and subjunctive forms, and when there’s no choice, there’s no difference at any level of grammatical meaning.

    I’m not sure there’s ever a whole lot of experiential difference between the two anyway (between “She insisted that he pay/s”) — more likely, there is a difference in interpersonal meaning (I’m telling you that I’m the sort of person who uses the subjunctive “correctly”, albeit unconsciously often).

    Does that answer your question?

    Nigel

  3. As an American speaker, I can say that there’s a huge “experiential difference” between the subjunctive and the indicative. If I say “She insisted that he pays,” to me that means that “she” is simply asserting that he normally pays — perhaps we’re arguing over our observations of how frequently he pays, and she’s telling me he normally does so. “She insisted that he pay” means she told him to pay. In the case of a third-person plural sentence, the subjunctive reading feels different from the indicative reading in just the same way, even though the verb form doesn’t change.

    Incidentally, I only today learned that British English prefers the use of “should.” To me, “She insisted that he should pay” has yet a third meaning — it retains the usual modal force of “should,” so to me it doesn’t mean that she ordered him to pay, but rather they had an argument over what is normally proper or expected, i.e. what he “should” do. By the way, would a British speaker retain the word ‘that’ in that sentence or would “She insisted he should pay” sound more natural? Does it make any difference in how the sentence is likely to be interpreted?

  4. Karen,

    Good point — I think what’s happening in your AmE example is that there are two different meanings of the verb insist:
    (1) insist = maintain that something happened
    (2) insist = demand that something happen (subjunctive!)

    Type (1) is a saying/thinking (reporting) verb. I don’t have my grammar book at home, and I can’t remember the functional name for type (2), but I think it’s some kind of action (material) verb.

    Meaning (1) is always followed by the indicative; meaning (2) takes the subjunctive in AmE. A similar example is suggest (“The paper suggests that there is a link between X and Y” / “The paper suggests that something be done.”)

    You’re also right about the alternative interpretation of should, although I suspect that’s less frequent. We would probably put stress on the modal “She insisted that he should pay”), which I think is a possible sentence in AmE, too.

    Omission of “that” … the usual pattern is to retain “that” in writing but omit it in speech. I can’t figure out how to do the corpus search right now. Will try again when my brain is more awake! Thanks for your comment.

  5. I’m American and I would almost never use “should” in those situations; I would use the present subjunctive form because it sounds better:

    He demanded I attend the hearing.
    They insisted he come alone.
    It is important that we not jump the gun.
    It’s best if he stay in the car.
    If it be possible, may I have an iced tea?
    If it be no trouble, might I come with you?
    If it please everyone, I’ll go.
    It’s vital that he speak good English.
    It’s about time I be freed.
    May God strike me dead if I be lying.

    This is how I say all of the above and have said these in speech and school papers so I consider them to be subjunctive. Thanks for the article.

    1. Nick, I agree that the subjunctive mood probably feels more natural to American speakers — or, at least writers — in most of the sentences, with the exception of the “if” clauses. “If it be possible” and “if it be no trouble” are probably not acceptable usage today; I don’t think they are even archaic subjunctives since they are real conditionals. “It it please …” is an archaic subjunctive, but has fallen out of use, except perhaps in legal contexts (if it please Your Honor …). The past subjunctive form clearly still exists in the conditional (if I were you …), but the present form has basically disappeared.

      You should certainly use the first batch in writing, but I wouldn’t recommend asking “if it please you, may I borrow your notes” in the school hallways …

      Thanks for your comment, and enjoy the blog!

      1. I am replying to your reply over three years ago to my post. I know: better late than never, but I was searching for information on this topic for a paper and I saw it. All right: “if it be possible” and “if it be no trouble” are more archaic usages of the subjunctive, but subjunctive usages nonetheless, whether you (agree) or not (“agree” is a subjunctive there, as well). I could say, “I’ll do it whether it be right or not” means “if it be right or if it not be right”, I’ll do it anyway. This is archaic. It’s used in the King James Bible and Shakespeare uses it a lot: “And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st/Except it be to pray against thy foes” (Shakespeare). In the second line, “Except it be to pray…” means “Unless it be to pray…”, which is a present subjunctive.

        I could use the modal “should” to replace these present subjunctive forms, even in AmE.; thus “if it should be possible” or “should it be possible” are perfectly fine. Also, “should it be no trouble” or “if it should be no trouble” work just as well as the former. I am back in school right now, but I went to get a degree prior in English, and have just gone back to get another. This is correct English and it’s correct t replace the “if/except/unless/whether coordinating clauses with the present indicative, as well, in modern English; therefore I would be correct and would conform to the hoi polloi if I said (“said” is a past subjunctive conjugation there), “If it is possible” or “whether it is right or not”; these examples are perfectly good, and actually more modern, forms; however I would argue that they way I sometimes say it is still grammatically correct and just a more formal construction. French, Spanish, and other languages have optional, grammatically-correct constructions that would be deemed more formal or more archaic; yet if someone should say (“should say” replaces the present subjunctive “if someone say”) these constructions, he is not necessarily speaking an incorrect register or form of the language.

        This is my argument, Nigel. You know what you’re talking about for the most part, though. Keep on writing lest the subjunctive forever be lost (“be lost” is a present subjunctive form opened up by the somewhat archaic subordinating conjunction, “lest”).

      2. I had made a lot of careless errors in my first post so I am republishing it here with the errors taken care of. It’s the English/linguistic major in me:

        I am replying to your reply over three years ago to my post. I know: better late than never, but I was searching for information on this topic for a paper and I saw it. All right: “if it be possible” and “if it be no trouble” are more archaic usages of the subjunctive, but subjunctive usages nonetheless, whether you agree or not (“agree” is a subjunctive in this context, as well). I could say, “I’ll do it whether it be right or not”, which means the same as, “if it be right or if it not be right”, I’ll do it anyway. This is archaic or very formal. It’s used in the King James Bible in many situations: “If God be…”, and Shakespeare uses it a lot: “And ne’er throughout the year to church thou go’st/Except it be to pray against thy foes” (Shakespeare). In the second line, “Except it be to pray…”, means, “Unless it be to pray…”, which is a present subjunctive form.

        I could use the modal “should” to replace these present subjunctive forms, even in AmE.; thus “if it should be possible” or “should it be possible” are perfectly fine. Also, “should it be no trouble” or “if it should be no trouble” work just as well as the former. I am back in school right now, but I went to get a degree prior in English, and have just gone back to get another. This is correct English and it’s correct to replace the “if/except/unless/whether” coordinating clauses with the present indicative, as well, in modern English; therefore I would be correct and would conform to the hoi polloi if I said (“said” is a past subjunctive conjugation there), “If it is possible” or “whether it is right or not”; these examples are perfectly good, and actually more modern, forms; however I would argue that the way I sometimes say it with a present subjunctive form after these coordinating conjunctions is still grammatically correct and just a more formal construction. French, Spanish, and other languages have optional, grammatically-correct constructions that would be deemed more formal or more archaic; yet if someone should say (“should say” replaces the present subjunctive form, “if someone say”) these constructions in his speech or he write them in a paper (“he write” is obviously subjunctive therein), he is not necessarily speaking an incorrect register or form of the language.

        This is my argument, Nigel. You know what you’re talking about for the most part, though. Keep on writing lest the subjunctive forever be lost (“be lost” is a present subjunctive form opened up by the somewhat archaic subordinating conjunction, “lest”).

  6. As an American, I have long been perturbed by the seeming disappearance of the subjunctive from British English. Aren’t you supposed to be the protectors of the language? Tsk tsk. We Americans are grammatically superior.

    1. Nick, thanks for your comment. There’s no argument here, incidentally — I’m not in the business of telling people what the language should look like. I’m just interested in describing how language is used in different registers, especially the register of American academic English. As an ESL teacher, I have to prioritize the grammar I teach, which is why I would prefer not to bother with the subjunctive at all. Archaic forms are interesting snapshots of the natural process of linguistic evolution through contact and internal language change. But there’s neither reason to lament their loss nor campaign for their restitution. In the example you gave, we can see that “except” was a subordinating conjunction in early modern English (except it be …), but presumably you would accept it with that form today (“except your writing improve, you will fail the class?!”).

      1. You raised the matter of “except”. I think it’s better to treat “except” as a preposition which can take many kinds of complements including content clauses (i.e. the so-called “that clauses”). Here are just a few:

        There’s nobody here except THE CLEANERS. (noun phrase)
        I’ve felt every imaginable way except PROUD OF MYSELF. (adj phrase)
        He said not a thing except THAT HE WAS SORRY. (declarative content clause)
        She asked nothing except THAT THEY BE REPRIMANDED. (subjunctive clause)

        BillJ

      2. Thanks, Bill. I agree that it is probably most helpful to see “except” as a preposition. The only problem is your 3rd example because prepositions aren’t followed by finite noun clauses (that …). In this case, it’s quite interesting because the noun clause is the complement of the reporting verb “said” not the preposition “except.” Same for the 4th sentence — the noun clause and the subjunctive are generated by “asked” not by “except” (she asked that they be reprimanded). I need to think this through more.

  7. Where are you teaching? In the states? Somewhere else? I understand your argument, Nigel; I was just merely responding to some of the masses’ refusal to see the diachronic subjunctive form in all of it.

    As for what I think is a coordinating conjunction in “except” there rather than a “subordinating” one, I would posit that, in modern English, one would say commonly, “except [if] your writing improves…”; somewhat more formally, “except [if] your writing should improve…; or way more formally or archaically, “except [if] your writing improve…”.

    I understand your rationale as an ESL teacher, but I would posit to you that, should you fail to show the subjunctive as it exists in modern American English today, you will confuse your students because, frankly, it is everywhere in its present subjunctive format in subordinating “that” clauses. Examples.: It is ordered by this court that the defendant have to pay a fine of $1,000. It was crucial that the levy pass. It is the defendant’s right that he remain silent throughout the proceedings.

    All of those above are the English subjunctive. I do agree that you can get around teaching the past subjunctive and the past perfect subjunctive, etc. without explaining to them that it’s the subjunctive–examples: “If he ran for Congress now, he would probably lose”, with “ran” as the third person singular past subjunctive form of the infinitive of the verb, “to run”–because, for the most part, it all looks like the simple past indicative; however, the present subjunctive is very alive in the US, especially in subordinating conjunctions (not so in coordinating ones like “if” or “unless”). Trying to hide from the subjunctive, or hide your students from the subjunctive is just plain mad.

    What languages do they speak? Almost every Romantic language that I can think, e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, etc., will use the subjunctive after the same “that” clauses in that respective language as will be used in English. Ex: “Il est important que je sois le roi,” translates from French to English as, “It is important that I be the king.” In French, the present indicative of “etre” (forgive the missing circumflex over the first “e”), which means “to be”, is “je suis”; but the present subjunctive is “je sois”. The above talks about something that is important followed by a “that” or “que” then a subordinate clause, “I be the king” or “je sois le roi.” It is axiomatic that the subjunctive in both languages is used in the same place in this example and in many other “that” clauses or “que” clauses throughout English and French. I think, if you should show them these examples from their language and compare them to English, you will get that “aha” moment from many of them; otherwise, you’re stuck telling them that, in English, one would say, “It is important that I am/should be the king”, with no explanation of why the verb changes in their own respective language.

    It’s food for thought, Nigel. Glean from it whatever you may. I am just trying to be helpful. Obviously, if I were you, I wouldn’t spend a great deal of time on the subjunctive; it might be a day at the most; but I would briefly mention its uses. Basically, English is a language of modals and its semi-modals. If I wanted to teach the moods of the language, I would take the nine modals, “shall, should, will, would, can, could, may, might, must”, and talk about them ad nauseum. I would throw in some of the useful semi-modals, “had to, ought to, had better, dare, need, have to, etc., and parse them, as well; but I would not beat those ones to death. If one can master the nine modals of the language, he is well on his way to mastery of the language. Good day, Nigel.

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