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Is the subjunctive disappearing in English?
Thread poster: Tim Drayton

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 03:12
Turkish to English
+ ...
May 16, 2014

For some time now, I have noticed examples of what I feel to be 'mistakes' in clauses introduced by 'that' where the idea expressed is something desired.

To quote an example from point 580 in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage:

"We insist that a meeting be held as soon as possible,"

where the subjunctive 'be held' is used to show that this is what the speaker thinks should be done.

On the other hand, to give just one counterexample that I have encountered, it was stated in a recent job post on Proz:

"We require linguists are available to work on this immediately."

The above sentence jars with me, and I feel that the verb should be the subjunctive form 'be' rather than 'are' because this is something that the speaker desires rather then being a statement of fact. I have always though such examples to be 'mistakes', most probably made by non-native speakers. However, this morning I heard on BBC Radio 4's news broadcast part of a sentence which, from memory, went something like:

"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees is refunded."

Again, to my mind the correct form is 'be refunded' and not 'is refunded' because this is what is desired. On the other hand, given that the source of this 'mistake' was the BBC, and as I belong to the descriptive rather than prescriptive school of grammar, I wonder if a shift is taking place in the rule.

I am not yet convinced, though, and will continue to use the subjunctive in this context in my own writing, unless somebody can convince me otherwise.


 

Carole Paquis  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:12
Member (2007)
English to French
I noticed it May 16, 2014

When I first arrived in the UK 20+ years ago, I used to see/hear a subjunctive every now and then, in "posher" circles. I haven't seen/heard one for years now.

Carole PAQUIS


 

urbom
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:12
German to English
+ ...
mandative subjunctive May 16, 2014

You can find a lot of corpus-based studies of this construction online by searching for the phrase "mandative subjunctive".

By and large, the findings tend to show that American English favo[u]rs the mandative subjunctive after patterns like recommend that, require that, etc., while British English tends to use the indicative.

[Edited at 2014-05-16 09:03 GMT]


 

David Hayes  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 02:12
Member (2009)
French to English
Optional May 16, 2014

I have always understood the English subjunctive as being optional in many cases. Some idiomatic phrases have survived, which we use without even thinking of the verb's subjunctive mood:

Eg:

"I should do it if I were you"

"If need be"

"Come what may"


 

Jo Macdonald  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:12
Member (2005)
Italian to English
+ ...
Imo May 16, 2014

Hi Tim,
"We require linguists are available to work on this immediately."
This jars with me too and I'd also say "to be available" or "linguists must be available.."

"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees is refunded."

In this case the first half of the phrase jars too imo, maybe " asked for a portion of their fees to be refunded" or "asked for a decision to be taken on refunding a portion of their fees"

Britain is a great melting pot of people from all over the world, and now people are traveling more languages will change faster I reckon. This will also depend on how much the locals stick to their guns though. For example, the use of English words in Italy is pretty common nowadays even in institutional circles, whereas the Spanish are much keener to use a Spanish word for every foreign concept.


 

Melanie Nassar  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:12
German to English
+ ...
Yes May 16, 2014

I have even had sentences of the type "We insist that a meeting be held" corrected to "is held", presumably by a native speaker.

And I can't get used to "If I was you" no matter how may times I hear it.


 

Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 02:12
German to English
prescriptive descriptivism May 16, 2014

I don't think that being more or less descriptivist pragmatists requires us to replicate every grammatical and lexical sin we read in the Telegraph or on ProZ or hear from the BBC.

I agree that there are a lot of questionable and difficult situations involving the subjunctive, particularly as translators working between different languages, but all of the examples described in the original post are simply stupid and annoying (note: I said "stupid and annoying" and not "wrong", i.e., I am engaging in descriptive and not prescriptive analysis).

There are also lots of things that are fine in conversation or in forums or in the "quality" press or even in the quality press, but which nonetheless shouldn't turn up in our translations.


 

Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:12
Finnish to English
No May 16, 2014

Unless it be just me

 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 08:12
Chinese to English
I feel like it's disappearing, but... May 16, 2014

...I don't entirely trust my own judgment on this. I may just be suffering from the recency illusion.

But yes, I'm 32, and I believe that for my generation of standard British English speakers, the use of subjunctive forms is often optional.

Tim Drayton wrote:

To quote an example from point 580 in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage:

"We insist that a meeting be held as soon as possible,"

So for me, that sentence could equally well be: We insist that a meeting is held as soon as possible.
To my idiolect, the two are both completely acceptable alternatives.
On the other hand, to give just one counterexample that I have encountered, it was stated in a recent job post on Proz:

"We require linguists are available to work on this immediately."

The above sentence jars with me, and I feel that the verb should be the subjunctive form 'be' rather than 'are' because this is something that the speaker desires rather then being a statement of fact.

It's ill-formed for me, too, because of the "that" is missing.
There are two ways in which it can be made well-formed:
"We require that linguists are available to work on this immediately."
"We require that linguists be available to work on this immediately."
These two sentences for me have slightly different meanings. The first one feels more like the linguists haven't been selected yet. It's a statement of a selection criterion. The second one feels more like a requirement imposed on those linguists who are selected.
I heard on BBC Radio 4's news broadcast part of a sentence which, from memory, went something like:

"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees is refunded."

Again, to my mind the correct form is 'be refunded' and not 'is refunded' because this is what is desired.

For me this is a questionable case. There's something messed up about about the tenses, and I think the finickiness of the "to be decided" makes me want a more "hyper-correct" second half.
I certainly agree with you that this sentence is well-formed:
"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees be refunded."
This following is ill-formed because the tense is wrong:
*"...asked the judge to decide that a portion of their fees is refunded."
This is ill-formed because the "was" creates ambiguity with a decision about a matter of fact:
*"...asked the judge to decide that a portion of their fees was refunded."
So for this sentence in the past tense, I'd still need the subjunctive form.

If it was the present tense (see what I did there?), I think this is OK:
"They are asking the judge to rule that a portion of their fees is refunded."
"They are asking the judge to rule that a portion of their fees be refunded."
?"They are asking for it to be ruled that a portion of their fees is refunded."

I am not yet convinced, though, and will continue to use the subjunctive in this context in my own writing, unless somebody can convince me otherwise.

I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with using the subjunctive forms, so no reason to stop using them. And wherever there's the potential for ambiguity (like above with the verb "decide"), I would say it would be legitimate for a proofreader to change the newer(?) indicative form to the subjunctive form.


 

Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 02:12
Italian to English
Be that as it may May 16, 2014

Melanie Nassar wrote:

I have even had sentences of the type "We insist that a meeting be held" corrected to "is held", presumably by a native speaker.



My impression is that US English is more conservative than, or perhaps just differently progressive from, UK English (other dialects are available). Your original sentence with its preference for the present subjunctive over an explicit deontic modal is a good example. After all, whoever "corrected" you might have had the decency to flag up the modality of the insistence with "should be" instead of that brutally indicative "is"!


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:12
Member (2008)
Italian to English
... May 16, 2014

If I were you I wouldn't worry about it.


icon_smile.gif


 

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 03:12
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
British English tends to use the indicative May 16, 2014

urbom wrote:

You can find a lot of corpus-based studies of this construction online by searching for the phrase "mandative subjunctive".

By and large, the findings tend to show that American English favo[u]rs the mandative subjunctive after patterns like recommend that, require that, etc., while British English tends to use the indicative.

[Edited at 2014-05-16 09:03 GMT]


Re: British English tends to use the indicative

I accept the above point, but then, as I understand it, it is necessary to paraphrase. You can't just use a structure requiring the subjunctive and make the verb indicative.


 

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 03:12
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for the confirmation May 16, 2014

Melanie Nassar wrote:

I have even had sentences of the type "We insist that a meeting be held" corrected to "is held", presumably by a native speaker.

And I can't get used to "If I was you" no matter how may times I hear it.


Thanks for confirming that. I am glad to discover that I am not just imagining this.

I first started noticing clauses of this type in a local English-language newspaper, which is actually written in good English, but I nevertheless assumed that this was a 'mistake' made by non-native speakers, and was even considering writing to them about this. Then I noticed examples elsewhere. I will continue to use the subjunctive in this kind of context, anyway.


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:12
French to English
+ ...
No longer really "subjunctives" May 16, 2014

I think it's important to be aware that, while we often refer informally to English having "subjunctives", they're not really subjunctives in the way this term is usually applied to languages as a whole. Usually, the phenomenon labelled "subjunctive" refers to a verbal paradigm that grammaticalises non-assertion. Or in other words, subjunctives are essentially "normal" conjugated verb forms: they have distinct forms in enough cases to identify that there is actually paradigm, syntactically behave essentially like any other conjugated verb form, and are instinctively acquired by any native six-year-old just like any other boring old verb form.

But in English, that's not what we have. Ignoring the case of the so-called "past subjunctive" with 'were' (which again is really a nonsensical notion-- we don't generally propose an entire paradigm based on one single form), all evidence suggests that every single so-called "subjunctive" form in English is actually an infinitive.

As speakers of other languages, the subjunctive can seem in some sense 'mandatory' or the lack of it surprising, but it seems to me that what we are trying to do in that case is impose the grammar of other languages on to English.

Tim Drayton wrote:
"We insist that a meeting be held as soon as possible,"

where the subjunctive 'be held' is used to show that this is what the speaker thinks should be done.


Now, what seems to have happened is that this construction, which is probably a relic from the time when English actually did have subjunctive forms, has more or less survived 'on the fringe' in formal usage but has been gradually declining for some time. What seems to have happened is that recently (in the last 50 years or so) it has had a modest revival in some varieties of English. You seem to be assuming that a short time ago, English was in a state where this construction was widely and instinctively used, but it's really not clear that that is the case.

Tim Drayton wrote:
"We require linguists are available to work on this immediately."


In this case, why do you assume that it has anything to do with the "subjunctive"? Isn't it just that the author missed out the word 'who'?

Tim Drayton wrote:
The above sentence jars with me


Sure: it's simply ungrammatical! But I don't think there's any strong evidence that this case is related to the issue of "subjunctive".

Tim Drayton wrote:
"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees is refunded."
...
and as I belong to the descriptive rather than prescriptive school of grammar, I wonder if a shift is taking place in the rule.


As I say, there possibly isn't a "shift", so much as a continual decline over the past few centuries. Along that decline, we're coming out of a minor 'blip' when the infinitive construction had a bit of a resurgence.

Though in this specific example, we need to be careful not to second-guess things. We don't actually know what script the newsreader had in front of them: perhaps it said "be" but the reader made a slip of the tongue; perhaps it said: "...that a portion of their fees is TO BE refunded" and either they misread it or a hasty editor cut it out at the last minute...


 

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 03:12
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Language change May 16, 2014

Phil Hand wrote:

...I don't entirely trust my own judgment on this. I may just be suffering from the recency illusion.

But yes, I'm 32, and I believe that for my generation of standard British English speakers, the use of subjunctive forms is often optional.

Tim Drayton wrote:

To quote an example from point 580 in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage:

"We insist that a meeting be held as soon as possible,"

So for me, that sentence could equally well be: We insist that a meeting is held as soon as possible.
To my idiolect, the two are both completely acceptable alternatives.
On the other hand, to give just one counterexample that I have encountered, it was stated in a recent job post on Proz:

"We require linguists are available to work on this immediately."

The above sentence jars with me, and I feel that the verb should be the subjunctive form 'be' rather than 'are' because this is something that the speaker desires rather then being a statement of fact.

It's ill-formed for me, too, because of the "that" is missing.
There are two ways in which it can be made well-formed:
"We require that linguists are available to work on this immediately."
"We require that linguists be available to work on this immediately."
These two sentences for me have slightly different meanings. The first one feels more like the linguists haven't been selected yet. It's a statement of a selection criterion. The second one feels more like a requirement imposed on those linguists who are selected.
I heard on BBC Radio 4's news broadcast part of a sentence which, from memory, went something like:

"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees is refunded."

Again, to my mind the correct form is 'be refunded' and not 'is refunded' because this is what is desired.

For me this is a questionable case. There's something messed up about about the tenses, and I think the finickiness of the "to be decided" makes me want a more "hyper-correct" second half.
I certainly agree with you that this sentence is well-formed:
"... asked for it to be decided that a portion of their fees be refunded."
This following is ill-formed because the tense is wrong:
*"...asked the judge to decide that a portion of their fees is refunded."
This is ill-formed because the "was" creates ambiguity with a decision about a matter of fact:
*"...asked the judge to decide that a portion of their fees was refunded."
So for this sentence in the past tense, I'd still need the subjunctive form.

If it was the present tense (see what I did there?), I think this is OK:
"They are asking the judge to rule that a portion of their fees is refunded."
"They are asking the judge to rule that a portion of their fees be refunded."
?"They are asking for it to be ruled that a portion of their fees is refunded."

I am not yet convinced, though, and will continue to use the subjunctive in this context in my own writing, unless somebody can convince me otherwise.

I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with using the subjunctive forms, so no reason to stop using them. And wherever there's the potential for ambiguity (like above with the verb "decide"), I would say it would be legitimate for a proofreader to change the newer(?) indicative form to the subjunctive form.


"So for me, that sentence could equally well be: We insist that a meeting is held as soon as possible.
To my idiolect, the two are both completely acceptable alternatives."

That is interesting feedback. I am a British-English speaker aged 57 who has lived in non-English speaking environments for quite lengthy periods. To my ear "We insist that a meeting is held as soon as possible" is wrong because the holding of the meeting is only a demand, not a reality, and so calls for the subjunctive. Language changes over time, though, and this may be one such example.


 
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