I read this sentence in the Guardian today, and I couldn't figure out if it was an error or a regionalism. (I did, however, figure out that I don't know my grammar too well!)

[the mid-18th century] court...had insisted that everyone kept a straight face.

To my ear, keep seems better than kept, but is one more right than the other?

  • 2
    Keep there would be acceptable, but it's increasingly seen as an "old-fashioned" usage. The Guardian is relatively "modern". Nov 7, 2014 at 17:49
  • This is just the indicative being used instead of the subjunctive. It sounds strange to some of us Americans, but the British commenting here seem fine with it. Nov 7, 2014 at 18:21
  • 1
    Sounds far worse than strange to me. (US)
    – TimR
    Nov 8, 2014 at 0:19
  • The thing about English is that past subjunctive really doesn't mean anything at all.
    – Lambie
    Jun 4, 2018 at 20:48
  • Everyone, please keep a straight face. I insist everyone keep a straight face. The lack of an s there is termed by some a subjunctive, alas. But past subjunctive is one pill I won't swallow.
    – Lambie
    Jun 4, 2018 at 20:51

2 Answers 2


As FumbleFingers noted, keep is acceptable. As to which is 'more right', if it is possible to have degrees of correctness, that is a question of style rather than grammar.

In the antediluvian days of my youth, "I insisted that he kept..." could mean only that he kept ... at some past time, and at some later time I insisted on the truth of this. "I insisted that he keep ..." was the required form if I was reporting my past insistence on a subsequent pattern of behaviour from him. This difference is perhaps clearer in these two sentences:

I insisted that my parents lived in London. My actual words wore "My parents live in London, I tell you!"

I insisted that my parents live in London. My actual words to my parents were "You must live in London. I insist on this".

Most speakers of BrE today would use the past-tense form in both situations.

  • 5
    It's odd that it's us progressive Americans who still insist on the distinction. (I may be wrong, but I think most speakers of American English today would not use the past-tense form in both situations. They may come up with new and creative incorrect tenses, but they wouldn't use the past tense to mean the subjunctive.)
    – Marthaª
    Nov 7, 2014 at 21:19
  • Some speakers of BrE still insist on a distinction but, while some use the present subjunctive, others use the modals should or even must.
    – tunny
    Nov 7, 2014 at 21:37
  • @Marthaª: I think you're quite right. I suspect there's always been a low level of "past instead of subjunctive" everywhere (maybe more so in the UK, I dunno). It's crossed over to "acceptability" in the UK now for many, but I doubt you'd see OP's example in the NYT. Nov 8, 2014 at 0:10
  • M-W says this meaning of "insist" (to persist in stating something in a manner that brooks no opposition) is archaic.
    – TimR
    Nov 8, 2014 at 0:26
  • @TRomano, why, what other possible meaning does "insist" have?
    – Marthaª
    Nov 8, 2014 at 4:26

It can go either way in different contexts.

If the court had insisted that everyone keep a straight face, the meaning of it is what you're supposing: that the court is, in the time frame referenced, insisting that portrait subjects remain serious in their portraits.

If the court really had insisted that everyone kept a straight face, the object of the instance could be an action in the past and be correct. In this sense, kept could be used to explain that the court had insisted that everyone had remained serious during [during an implicitly referenced event], possibly because someone was questioning or criticizing the court on a point to the contrary. This isn't what's intended by use of the word in the article.

It's important to remember that the tense of the verb that is being performed by your subject does not have to agree in tense with the object of that verb (if the verb is transitive, like in this case). For example, if I'm talking about a baseball game I played last week, it would sound ridiculous to say something like, "In the second inning, coach insisted that I stole a base." The reason for this is simple: the verb "insisted" indicates that the insisting was done in the past, but the object of the verb is something that happened in the present of that context. "Coach insisted that I steal a base," is the correct way to say it because the object of my coach's insistence is a mandate, and we typically use the present tense of verbs for mandates. ("Eat all your veggies," "Don't run with scissors!", "Visit your grandparents on Saturday.")

For the second context I mention, the word "kept" as the object of the verb "insisted" isn't serving as a mandate--it's serving as a regular verb. If I insist that I did something, I'm insisting (in the present) that I did something (in the past, relative to the context of the insistence happening in the present). If I insisted that I will do something, I insisted (in the past) that I will do something (in the future, relative to the context of the insistence in the past). And so on. I would only use "kept" as the object of the verb like in the question if I were emphasizing that someone kept something by insisting on it.

  • 2
    Yes, except it's not "old" journalism - it's only a few weeks ago. And in the exact context, I much prefer what looks to me like simple past. Nov 7, 2014 at 18:12
  • I'm not sure of the terminology for fast-becoming-outdated grammatical terminology, but I'm guessing OP's suggested keep is subjunctive. I don't much like it there, but it's a bit of a sterile debate to identify either usage as right/wrong. Nov 7, 2014 at 18:26
  • Ah, right. I put too much weight on your first sentence (which I agree with), and didn't pay sufficient attention to your distinction as drawn in the next two paragraphs (which I don't agree with). It's obviously all well in the past and long over now. The matter of whether straight faces were required continuously or only on a specific occasion seems irrelevant to me. Nov 7, 2014 at 18:34
  • 4
    A mandate takes the subjunctive form. "I demand that he be removed at once." Nov 7, 2014 at 20:17
  • 2
    @Fumble The distinction drawn here is very relevant. Keep is the only option traditionally and prescriptively considered ‘correct’ (though kept has made its way into BrE vernacular in this sense, too) if the court was mandating that people [should] keep quiet. If someone had claimed that there was noise and the court had insisted upon the fact there wasn't and everyone was quiet, kept is the only possible option. Compare: “The court insisted that everyone be quiet” vs. “The court insisted that everyone was quiet”. Nov 7, 2014 at 20:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

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