4

What is the difference between:

  1. The company would rather each employee be provided with ID card.

  2. The company would rather each employee were provided with ID card.

  • The same as between be and were. Why should this be a special case? – Kris May 9 '14 at 11:00
  • That's a good question, imo. That the idiom "would rather" seems to support those two different types of subordinate clauses with their own modality. – F.E. May 9 '14 at 17:52
  • @F.E. Just one would do: bullet or number. Just one would do: period or closing parenthesis. – Kris May 10 '14 at 4:30
  • @F.E. These are preset formats and we only have a limited choice to select from here. Left blanks are (as are all consecutive spaces) trimmed away. That's all I learned so far. Is that any better now? – Kris May 10 '14 at 4:45
  • Maybe this. However, we need to raise this issue on meta or chat. – Kris May 10 '14 at 5:13
5

Here is my understanding of the way they are supposed to be used:

The difference is between the present subjunctive (also called the mandative subjunctive) and the past subjective (also called the irrealis).

The company would rather (that) each employee be provided with an ID card.

This is the mandative subjunctive, generally used for orders and suggestions. To me, this sounds like the company is trying to decide between two (or more) possible policies, and they prefer this one. It still might not happen, if other considerations prevent it (i.e., maybe it's too expensive).

The company would rather (that) each employee were provided with an ID card.

This is the irrealis mood. It is used for hypothetical situations. Here, it is not the case that each employee has been provided with an ID card, and the company wishes that it were the case. Unlike the first sentence, there is no implication that they are considering taking action to make it the case, although this possibility isn't ruled out.

Searching with Google, it seems that there is not that sharp a distinction between these in actual use. While the above difference seems to describe the most probable meanings, you can find a number of cases where be is used for what are clearly hypothetical or impossible situations, and a number of cases where were is used for what look like actual suggestions.

  • +1. A pretty good explanation (subjunctive vs irrealis). (Interesting that the idiom "would rather" can seemingly support both types of subordinate clauses with their different types of modality.) – F.E. May 9 '14 at 17:47
  • 1
    @F.E.: Using Ngrams, it looks like would rather originally only supported the irrealis, and its supporting the mandative subjunctive is a recent innovation (but one that makes sense to me). – Peter Shor May 9 '14 at 20:12
0

The company would rather each employee were provided with an ID card. /

The company would rather each employee were in possession of an ID card.

= The company would prefer it if each employee had an ID card. [statement of what the company would like the present set-up to be, not what it actually is]

The company would rather each employee be provided with an ID card.

= The company wants each employee to be given an ID card.

[statement of the company's action plan]

Both boil down to the same thing, really.

  • 1
    "Both boil down to the same thing, really." Why? be # were. – Kris May 9 '14 at 11:01
  • so, "would rather+subj+past subjunctive"-->imaginary situation and "would rather+subj+bare infinitive" --> preference? right? – Elisabetta May 9 '14 at 11:29
  • @Kris The company prefers that each employee has a card. One variant is just highlighting the providing of the card. As Peter says, 'Searching with Google, it seems that there is not that sharp a distinction between these in actual use.' I suppose I get the downvote because I corrected you elsewhere. – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '14 at 13:37
  • Huh? That is not even grammatical: “The company prefers that each employee has a card.” You just can’t say that; it must be “The company prefers that each employee have a card.” Doing it the other way sounds completely non-native-speakerish cisatlantically, and it would never be tolerated here. – tchrist May 11 '14 at 1:03
  • Does 'We would prefer that he goes to a home with ...' also sound wrong? Half a million Google hits just for "prefer that he goes". Twice as many as the version using the subjunctive. "Prefer that he takes" also out-performs "prefer that he take". The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that the indicative forms may be used if preferred (though admittedly it does not make clear for what exact structures). 'It is essential that we be informed of your plans' sounds a lot more old-fashioned than 'It is essential that we are informed of your plans'. – Edwin Ashworth May 11 '14 at 8:39

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