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. Continue reading “The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London”

World Cup language

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=world+cup+england+us&iid=9097887″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”167″ /]The soccer (US)/football (UK) World Cup may be a great sporting event (I stress may …), but it is an even greater opportunity for linguists, especially since England played the U.S. yesterday. Quite apart from the fact that the two teams have different names for the game itself and almost everything to do with it (field vs pitch, match vs game, and I believe the vocabulary for the players’ positions varies, too), I found two charming language notes to share.

My local paper carried this headline on the sports page today:

Americans win 1-1 draw vs. England

I presume the reporter expected England to win (yes, well …), so for the American team to force a draw (or tie in American English?) is a success for them. Interestingly, this suggests that win is not necessarily in a binary relationship with lose (or even a mutually exclusive relationship with lose and draw/tie). That is, winning is not the same as not losing or not tying. [Compare lend/borrow as a true pair of binary verbs.] This reminds me of the (American) football game last year when the Eagles’ quarterback, Donovan McNabb, claimed that he “never knew” that a tie was possible in a regular season game, making the result seem like another loss to the long-suffering fans of Philadelphia like myself.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=soccer+red+card&iid=9105348″ src=”″ width=”127″ height=”185″ /]But back to the football that is mostly played with the foot. Using bad language (i.e. swearing/cursing) is punished quite strictly during the World Cup, but only if the referee hears and understands it. Since referees have to be from neutral countries, no English or American refs could officiate Saturday’s game. An amusing piece from AP noted that:

referees can’t give out cards [i.e. warnings and expulsions] for what they think was said, and FIFA requires World Cup referees and assistants to be proficient only in English.

Which means that you might get away with swearing as long as you avoid English and the ref’s first language! I presume the English team was studying useful expressions in Chinese before the game …