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Recently on IRC I said this:

I do not believe in proving the correctness of already constructed programs. I believe in formally deriving programs so that they be correct.

And I got almost instantly corrected:

DijkstraGroupie: So that they are correct, you mean.

Checking on Wikipedia, I found the following:

I want you to give this money to him so that he have enough for lunch. (the conjunction "so that" takes a subjunctive in formal English)

What usage is correct, in this case?

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Subjunctive mood is normally used in phrases such as "I demand he be in time, tomorrow," or "if she were rich, she would live on Long Island." I don't see any rule about using the subjective with so that. – kiamlaluno Feb 20 '12 at 20:51
Without wishing to get bogged down in the question of whether OP's "be" here is "subjunctive" or not (or indeed whether the subjunctive even exists in modern English), I would say there's nothing wrong with it apart from sounding a little dated/stilted/formal. The Wikipedia example, on the other hand, seems hopelessly archaic, and I wouldn't put any faith in (the conjunction "so that" takes a subjunctive in formal English). – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 22:04

The subjunctive is rare in British English, but perhaps less so in American English. In either variety, I want you to give this money to him so that he have enough for lunch seems a most peculiar sentence. In British English it would be expressed as I want you to give this money to him so that he's got enough for lunch. In British English, too, your example so that they be correct would sound extremely formal. So that they're correct is what you'd hear most of the time.

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Is it uncommon in British English to say sentences like: "It is important that he attend the meeting"? I know it's OK in American English. If it's not in BrE, what's the correct/common equivalent? – Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 20 '12 at 20:37
@ArmenTsirunyan: It's not unheard of, but BrEng tends either to use the indicative in such cases ('important that he attends') or the modal verb 'should' followed by the plain form of the main verb ('important that he should attend'). – Barrie England Feb 20 '12 at 20:51
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p994) has an almost identical example: It lists each of the following as correct: It is essential that everyone attend the meeting. / It is essential that everyone attends the meeting. / It is essential that everyone should attend the meeting. – Shoe Feb 20 '12 at 21:19
@Shoe: Does it use the word 'correct'? – Barrie England Feb 20 '12 at 22:02
Shouldn't it be "..give this money to him so that he has enough for lunch" (or "..so that he'll have enough for lunch")? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Feb 20 '12 at 22:53

There is nothing wrong with: I believe in formally deriving programs so that they be correct. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p1000) lists so (that) as one of the two purposive prepositions (along with in order that) that can take the subjunctive, although this is not common. The example given is:

  • Extraordinary precautions were taken so that no stranger be allowed in the city.
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I have only the stripped-down version of the CGEL, where the authors say that instead of ‘It is essential that he keep us informed', ‘many speakers would here use a present tense in preference to the slightly more formal subjunctive’. That certaihly seems to be the case in BrEng. – Barrie England Feb 21 '12 at 7:33
@Barrie England, As a British native speaker of English I would use the subjunctive in such constructions on only the rarest of occasions and after much consideration as to whether the context would justify it. I never use it in unplanned speech or writing. – Shoe Feb 21 '12 at 10:09

While using subjuntive, the part you should be careful is not "that" or "so that". It is used after certain expressions. Pay attention:

1) the verbs

ask, command, demand, insist, propose, recommend, request, suggest + (that) + subjuntive

He insists that the car park be locked at night.

2) expressions such as

it is desirable, essential, important, necessary, vital + (that) + subjuntive

It is essential that she be present.

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You really can't trust Wikipedia about matters of "grammatical correctness". I'm afraid that's quite wrong. There is no "subjunctive" to "take" in English, and in any case so that does not govern an untensed that-clause the way, say, important does.

  • It's important that they be on time tomorrow.

Untensed that-clauses (which are often called "subjunctive") are just one more variety of complement, like infinitives without to or embedded questions, and in Modern English these are governed by predicates, not conjunctions.

Patrick Henry famously said "If this be treason, make the most of it." That was over 200 years ago. However, nobody talks (or writes) that way any more.

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Could you perhaps include a good source which would back up your claim that this is not subjunctive, but rather an "untensed that clause". I googled the latter term and didn't find anything useful. [One of the sources] (ebooks.unibuc.ro/filologie/cornilescu/3.pdf) implied that the term refers to examples like " For it to seem that John was late would be an erro" – Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 20 '12 at 20:35
Far be it from me to argue, but who said there is no subjunctive in English? – JeffSahol Feb 20 '12 at 20:38
+1, but I'm a bit unsure of your claim that "in Modern English these [untensed that-clauses] are governed by predicates, not conjunctions." It seems like that would rule out not only *"so that they be on time" (which I think is wrong) but also "in order that they be on time" (which I think is right, at least in American English). (Also, I think you mean Present-Day English specifically, and not Modern English in general; otherwise your Patrick Henry example would defeat your point.) – ruakh Feb 20 '12 at 20:38
"Subjunctive" is a term from Latin that refers to an inflection class (a "mood") for verbs. Every Latin verb had several special subjunctive forms -- distinguishable instantly from all other forms of that verb -- which were used in certain constructions. English does not have any moods; English verbs (not counting be) have at most 6 forms, none of which are inflected for mood of any sort. – John Lawler Feb 20 '12 at 21:08
There are a number of constructions in English that are used in certain ways reminiscent of the Latin (or even more of the German) subjunctive moods, but there is no consistent or useful definition of what is "subjunctive" and what is not in English, though there is great faith in its existence. I believe that the reason for this may be that identifying a sentence as "subjunctive" makes people feel good, rather like identifying the "parts of speech", even though it contributes nothing to understanding the sentence or its grammar. – John Lawler Feb 20 '12 at 21:12

I'm an hispanophone, francophone and anglophone.

Let me tell you how I understand the use of subjunctives.

"It is important to be on time"

This sentence is understood as an order (something believed with certainty) and the feeling is cold and generalist or apathetic.

"It is important that you be on time"

This sentence is understood as an advice (something subjective) and the feeling is warm and empathetic.

It is very important that we stop simplifying the language. Simplicity as sending a message without all the necessary data that others would need to decode the feelings in our words. Unless, we're talking on behalf of a higher entity like an organization or a political party.

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Welcome to EL&U. I'm afraid I take the exact opposite interpretation of your example sentences. The first sets out a general rule. The second singles out an individual, and can be interpreted as accusatory. In any case, however, this does not seem to answer the question at hand, and as this is a Q&A site rather than a discussion forum, it may be converted to a comment or deleted. I encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for a better understanding of how StackExchange operates, and hope you continue to participate. – choster Jul 18 at 15:39
Well It does answer the question. The explicit answer is that there is no correct answer, using subjonctive is a matter of personal style and self expression. But, If a sentence is formulated with a subjective meaning then the subjonctive most be applied because It is the grammatical rule and also coherence. Otherwise, If a sentence implies certainty or accusation then there is obviously no reason for using the subjonctive form. – espaciomore Jul 21 at 16:12

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