Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The worst that can happen is that he fail/fails/would fail/will fail the exam.

Which of these is (or are) correct? In Spanish, the subjunctive mood would be used, is the case similar in English?

share|improve this question
add comment

4 Answers 4

The worst that can happen is that he fail/fails/would fail/will fail the exam.

The subjunctive fail sounds a bit off to me here. As a subjunctive clause, that he fail the exam is flawless, but in English, the subjunctive is most often used to convey a request or command: She insisted that he give that student the failing grade he deserved. (The subjunctive is also used in a few other cases, none of which apply here.)

The declarative fails and will fail strike me as acceptable but informal. Would fail is all right. Should fail/can fail/could fail are all acceptable too. Should fail is a bit formal.

share|improve this answer
add comment

"fails" is correct. The sentence then means that the exam is in the future and he might fail.

"fail" is wrong in this instance since the subject is singular, and fail would be used for a plural subject.

"would fail" can not be used in this case. It would be used in a situation like: He didn't want to try because he thought he would fail.

"will fail" I am unsure about. But I think it comes down to "tense simplification" Michael Swan's Practical English Usage:

If the main verb of a sentence makes it clear what kind of time the speaker is talking about, it is not always necessary for the same time to be indicated again in subordinate clauses. ... And: Verbs in subordinate clauses are often simpler in form than verbs in main clauses - for example present instead of future, simple past instead of would + infinitive, simple past instead of past perfect. You'll find Coca-Cola wherever you go. NOT: wherever you will go.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks! Can you elaborate why "fail" is incorrect? I didn't mean indicative "fail" as in "I fail", but rather the subjunctive mood, as in "I request that he fail" or "Tell him to prepare, lest he fail". –  Ilya Kogan Apr 13 '11 at 6:51
    
From Wikipedia: "In grammar, the subjunctive mood (...) is a verb mood typically used in subordinate clauses to express a wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred. It is sometimes referred to as the conjunctive mood, as it often follows a conjunction. The details of subjunctive use vary from language to language." Your sentence could be expressing a possibility, or action that has not yet occured, but to me "fail" sounds too old-fashioned in this case. I might be wrong about that last part. –  masarah Apr 13 '11 at 7:22
    
Here is the link to Subjunctive usage in English on Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive –  masarah Apr 13 '11 at 7:25
    
@masarah: Suppose the sentence was written as "The worst that can happen is that he should fail the exam." Doesn't that work? –  AAT Apr 13 '11 at 7:44
    
@AAT: "Should" seems out of place there for me. But I am unable to find proof to confirm my opinion about that. Hopefully someone else can help. –  masarah Apr 13 '11 at 8:04
show 3 more comments

The worst that can happen is that he fail the exam.

I'm an English major. Yes, unlike the others above, I agree with you. Just like in Spanish, the subjunctive is used here, too, in English. You could also use a modal here like "will" with "fail". The subjunctive is very formal here, though. There are many places in English sentences wherein the subjunctive should be used, but isn't. Here is one.

Example: The worst that can happen is that he be found guilty.

It's difficult to tell sometimes. I like to use "be" to see whether the subjunctive is correct. Cheers!!!!

share|improve this answer
add comment

There are two solutions to your problem. Strictly speaking, the best answer is

The worst that can happen is that he will fail the exam.

However, the subjunctive construction can also work, although it will certainly caused eyebrows to be raised in your direction:

The worst that can happen is that he fail the exam.

Some would argue that the subjunctive is no longer applicable in this construction in English; I like it, but I'm not prepared to argue very vigorously in its defense. The remaining version (the indicative “fails”) is analogous to saying “If I was a rich man”: certainly acceptable English, but not strictly correct.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.