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.