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”