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In the sentence 'She suggested that they go to the cinema' there is no way of telling from the sentence in isolation whether it means that the speaker gave advice on attending a moving picture show, or whether the speaker believed that some people were already in the habit of enjoying cinematographic entertainment. The same is true in relation to an individual when the past tense is used, as in 'She suggested that he went to the cinema.' We depend on context to tell us which meaning is intended.

Now, when we come to the third person singular in the present tense, I understand that American English distinguishes between the mandative subjunctive ('She suggested that he go to the cinema') and the indicative ('She suggested that he goes to the cinema') to express the two meanings. Why does American English insist on an inflectional distinction in the third person singular here when it is obliged to rely on context elsewhere?

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I'd suspect that it's a hangover from the English of the Pilgrim Fathers, rather like gotten -- which has all but disappeared from British English. That said, the subjunctive mood has not entirely succumbed to the collective will of English teachers in Britain and been replaced by the indicative, either! –  Andrew Leach Jul 31 '12 at 18:50
@AndrewLeach: But why have these forms persisted in the United States and not in the United Kingdom? In British English the only purpose served by the subjunctive is to give its users a sprurious sense of linguistic superiority. –  Barrie England Jul 31 '12 at 18:54
As interesting as this question is, I'm not sure how answerable/constructive a 'why' question is, unless you want to trace the usage and modification of the forms back to the local dialects in England. Or some prescriptive admonition by Webster or E.B. White or Chicago Style guide. –  Mitch Jul 31 '12 at 18:58
I don't see the distinction you are trying to draw. Which usage do you consider correct BrE, the mandative subjunctive or the indicative? Also, your use of personification ("Why does American English insist on ...?") makes this sound like peeving in the form of a question. I find myself resenting your characterization of AmE as being somehow obdurate in this matter. My question to you would be this: Even if things are as you say, why would that get your knickers in a twist? –  Robusto Jul 31 '12 at 19:22
The question could equally well ask why British English fails to make the distinction. –  Barrie England Jul 31 '12 at 19:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

(this is totally "armchair philosophising" - I've no authorities I can cite to back me up here)

I think there's a tendency to assume AmE (American English) is somehow "more advanced" than BrE (British English), simply because their orthography got a major revision from Noah Webster's dictionary at a period in American history when such wholesale changes could actually succeed.

In many respects though, it seems to me AmE is actually more conservative than BrE. I believe this stems from the fact that over the past couple of centuries, a significantly higher percentage of Americans didn't have English as their mother tongue (I think it's now higher in the UK, but I can't find a source to back me up even on that).

So turning to OP's question, I suggest we're dealing with something akin to the hypercorrection whereby a Cockney - knowing he's prone to drop aitches - might sometimes add an aitch that shouldn't exist, when trying to speak "correctly".

By the same token, a disproportionate number of Americans might overzealously apply fine/meaningless distinctions because they don't have the confidence not to (lest they be mistaken for non-competent speakers).

Again, with no references, I believe there are more "autonomous, distinct dialects" in Britain, despite the much lower population (many such dialects are now actively promoted by national media). The net result may well be that competent speakers in Britain are more comfortable with discarding "dated" inflections and other language variants which in practice rarely lead to ambiguity because context normally make the meaning clear.

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If anything, the conservative nature of American English owes more to the dramatically lower population density historically slowing down communications and interchange — and change — than it does to people who don’t speak English as their first language. American English has a few bits of stray vocabulary that it has borrowed from immigrants (pits in stone fruit from the Dutch, cilantro from the Mexicans) but no grammar. There might be a few pockets suspected of being from immigrant grammar, but nothing fingerpointatable. –  tchrist Jul 31 '12 at 22:41
@tchrist: I'm sure the lower population density (read, isolated linguistic communities) is also a factor. That's what I had in mind when I said Webster was working in a context where his endeavours could actually succeed. Every "little house on the prairie" would have at least a Bible and a dictionary, and once Merriam-Webster got the unit price down to a reasonable level, I bet they soon got established as the standard. –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '12 at 22:55
@tchrist: I don't follow that reasoning. I would expect rather that a small community, especially one geographically isolated from a standard, would have much more change, much more 'drift' as it were. Any random change would be more likely to survive in a smaller community, than in a larger one. –  Mitch Aug 1 '12 at 0:52
@Mitch Why do diseases spread more quickly in dense urban environments than in sparse rural ones? Plus from here: “... the original dialect of the region is better preserved in the speech of the lower and less-educated classes. In large urban centres, innovations unknown in the former dialect of the region frequently develop.” –  tchrist Aug 1 '12 at 1:07
@tchrist: so much to discuss! But I don't by the conservativity (-ness?) argument with respect to AmE vs BrE (there might be other reasons but colony vs homeland is not it (neither is urban vs rural: that article says that the London and Parisian accents are the bases for the standard languages which I find terribly wrong). Anyway, as Romance seems to be your strength, which languages/dialects are the most conservative and which are the furthest away from the homeland? the answers are different. Italian is conservative, French/Romanian/Brazilian are the most innovative. –  Mitch Aug 1 '12 at 2:13

English is a great language in many respects, but it isn't perfect. Many people believe that operas sound better sung in Italian, for instance.

Perhaps a better question would be: "Why don't we have the availability of more inflectional distinctions when using verbs, with which we could more easily avoid ambiguous interpretations?" (I fail to see any pure Americanisms in the examples given - they all sound normal, if not conversational, to my British ears.)

There are, however, convenient ways to avoid the ambiguities - for instance:

She suggested that they should / might go to the cinema.

She suggested that they were cinema-goers. ('they' could of course be meant to include the speaker - further clarification might be required)

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The modal solution is certainly one that's available in British English. Less so in American English, I suspect. But the question remains: why be bothered about it in the third person singular in the present when we manage perfectly well in other linguistic environments? As for opera, I don't mind what language it's sung in, as someone said, provided it's one I don't understand. –  Barrie England Jul 31 '12 at 19:06
@BarrieEngland Your “provided it’s one I don’t understand” would more likely be “provided it’s one I not understand” here. There are various transatlantic differences in how we respectively use do, and this is one of those places. –  tchrist Jan 4 at 18:47

You may as well ask “why” the Romance tongues have also preserved the mandative subjunctive. Certainly one possible answer is because they (and we) find it a useful distinction to respect and apply. However, one can easily devise many other potential explanations, all with no clear way to choose between them.

Similarly, you may as well ask “why” French has switched the protasis of a conditional to imperfect indicative when the other Romance tongues retain the original imperfect subjunctive for the same. Or per the discussion the other day, “why” British people seem more tolerant of ought not to do where Americans more often use a real modal and say ought not do. Or “why” a British person is wont to use a bare do in places where an American needs must supply a proper complement and say do so, lest it come off as ungrammatical. Or “why” British say different to where Americans say different from. Or “why” the English (but perhaps not the Scots) prefer proved where Americans use proven.

All these matters of grammar are quite different from something like definitively tracing spelling changes back to Webster. There need be no “why” for any of these; there is just “is” and “does”. All you can do is document that they occur. The discussion may be interesting, but I cannot see it drawing towards any conclusion. I honestly don’t see how this “why” answer can have a single, testable answer.

I’d be be delighted to be proven wrong.

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+1. To answer just your first question, English has modal verbs available which make the subjunctive superfluous. My own feeling is that as there is no purely linguistic need for the subjunctive form in the third person singular, the explanation for its persistence must be a sociolinguistic one. As a mere Brit I don't feel qualified to provide it and I was hoping that speakers of AmEng might be able to do so. –  Barrie England Jul 31 '12 at 19:57
@BarrieEngland I'm a Brit and I pretty much feel the opposite of what you do. :-) I love the 3rd person subjunctive, and frankly it gets on my nerves when people say is and not be. For instance, the other day, David Cameron said that he thought it was important that "the Euro is successful". Is the Euro currently successful? If not, that sentence is misleading. He thinks it important that the Euro be successful. I grant that this only works with the 3rd person because the subjunctive is the same as the indicative in other persons, but that's an unfortunate weakness of the language. –  Jez Aug 1 '12 at 0:21
@Jez: We're all entitled to our personal linguistic preferences and I don't necessarily dislike the form we're discussing. But there's no denying the fact that it's fast disappearing in British English. You may mourn that, but I don't suppose you mourn the passing of the many inflections that characterised earlier stages of the language. There's a kind of nimbyism at play in clinging to features of the language we've become fond of from an early stage in our lives. To misquote St Augustine, Lord, let our language change, but not yet. –  Barrie England Aug 1 '12 at 6:40

protected by Andrew Leach Dec 5 '14 at 18:51

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