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When should I use the subjunctive mood?

The city council has asked a comprehensive survey be performed in order to determine the measures to lessen the serious traffic congestion during rush hours almost everyday.

Could you please explain why "be performed" is used here?

  • 1
    I've added the "subjunctive-mood" tag as that seems relevant here. The "tense" tag may or may not be.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 2 '13 at 19:33
  • Except for the fact that there's no subjunctive mood in English. But tags are irrelevant anyway. Feb 2 '13 at 19:45
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    Are you sure the original did not say "[...] asked that a comprehensive..."?
    – terdon
    Feb 2 '13 at 19:49
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    @JohnLawler Perhaps you might someday please explain precisely what you mean by “English does not have a subjunctive mood” by first explaining what a “subjunctive mood” (not to mention a “subjunctive” or a “mood”) is intended to mean or not mean. Otherwise it is impossible to evaluate the truthfulness, let alone the usefulness, of such a controversial statement as you have just made.
    – tchrist
    Feb 2 '13 at 20:34
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    @tchrist There is a very good treatment here, which explains why I carefully say "traditionally called ..." Feb 2 '13 at 22:34

The verb ask can take several different kinds of object complement clause.

By far the most common kind with ask is the infinitive complement, usually with Equi-NP-Deletion of the infinitive subject from the indirect object of ask:

  • They asked us to perform a comprehensive survey.
    i.e, us is the IO of ask, and also it's the subject of perform, though it's not repeated.

However, if ask is only transitive (rather than bitransitive; i.e, no indirect object), it can take an untensed That-complement, which is a cross between an ordinary tensed That-complement and an infinitive complement.

It looks just like a regular That-complement, except it uses an infinitive (which has no tense -- that's what infinitive means) as the main verb.

  • They asked that he write "No flowers, please" on the announcement.
    notice, *he write, not he writes or he wrote; those are tensed.

Untensed That-complements are often called "Subjunctive" by those who

  • have studied Latin
  • have been taught by those who studied Latin
  • have been taught by someone taught by someone who studied Latin
    etc, d.c. al fine.

because Latin had a subjunctive mood that is sometimes used in some of the same ways as the English untensed That-complement is. The term has become attached to the meaning in English, instead of to the grammar. That's why you probably never heard of an untensed That-complement before.

In the sentence given, (in brief)

  • The city council has asked that a comprehensive survey be performed...

the complementizer that has been deleted, as it almost always is with object complements. (Note, incidentally, that the first auxiliary verb in the complement clause -- which takes the tense if there is any -- is be, the infinitive form).

The sentence would be clearer with the that left in. And the rest of the sentence is way too complex, with far too many subordinate clauses and marker deletions. If clarity is the object, make them all separate sentences, or at least put back some clause markers.

  • Do you mean that you would consider it correct as it stands? Without the that?
    – terdon
    Feb 2 '13 at 21:17
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    I do not pass judgement on imaginary concepts like "correctness". It's either clear or not, and this is not clear. The fact that you asked about it is evidence that it's not as clear as it would be with the that. But both are grammatical. Grammaticality has nothing to do with clarity. And "correctness" is a matter of opinion, not fact. Feb 2 '13 at 21:25
  • Nicely put and point taken. Could you please elaborate a little on why the sentence is grammatical in the absence of that? To me it reads as though the survey is the object of the sentence. As though the council was asking the survey for something.
    – terdon
    Feb 2 '13 at 21:30
  • The tensed-clause complementizer that can be deleted, and usually is, when the tensed complement clause is not the subject of the sentence. It's there to mark the beginning of a tensed clause, and if it is felt to be obvious where the clause starts, it's usually deleted. It can be put back in optionally anywhere, and should be if there's any problem; what's "obvious" to a writer is not always obvious to a reader. As you noticed. Feb 2 '13 at 21:45
  • I jumped the gun a bit there by editing OP's asked into requested! (now reverted to original). The question seems to be about the "subjunctive", and it seemed to me the missing "that" was an unnecessary distraction that (to me at least) is less noticeable after "requested" (but I'm not even sure about that any more! :) Feb 2 '13 at 22:15

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