Why has much UK writing abandoned the use of the subjunctive?

I see phrases such as:

  1. "It is important that his writing is comprehensible."

rather than,

  1. "It is important that his writing be comprehensible." -- (subjunctive)

By and large, most American and Canadian writing continues with the subjunctive in this kind of phrase, whereas it seems to have disappeared from British English.

Stock phrases such as "If I were you …" are retained, but I wonder when it will change to "If I was you …" ?

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    If this is a "why" question, you're not going to get an answer here, and it should probably be closed because it's a matter of opinion. – Peter Shor Jan 4 '15 at 16:43
  • Closely related to “Why is American English so wedded to the subjunctive?”, which asks the opposite question. As @PeterShor observes, there’s unlikely to be any definitive answer to these sorts of “why” questions; you will only ever get “just-so” sorts of answers. Literate/literary/formal/educated/high-register use is more alike in this than low-register/informal/common-speech use, the latter varying more depending on which side of the pond one lives on. – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 16:44
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    I'd say that in the UK, lots of otherwise well-educated people don't even know what the subjunctive is. And that fragment "his writing be comprehensible" would sound archaic to most Brits. It's not just English: in an 'Improve Your French' class, the teacher asked me how to say "I've got to go". She laughed when I dutifully used the subjunctive, "Il faut que j'aille" and offered "Je dois aller", which is just what I was taught not to say 50 years ago. – David Garner Jan 4 '15 at 17:24
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    @DavidGarner You really can’t take an untensed fragment in isolation and have it make any sense. You really need the governing main clause here: “It is important that his writing be comprehensible”, which certainly means something different in North America from the is version. Apparently the British Isles have lost the standing requirement that this sort of thing be taught in schools. :) – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 18:12
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    "Why has much UK writing abandoned the use of the subjunctive?" <== Where are you getting your info? My impression is the opposite. For instance, chapter 3.2 "The revival of the mandative subjunctive" in Change in Contemporary English, by Leech, Hundt, Mair, Smith. – F.E. Jan 4 '15 at 20:21

There may not exist an objective answer to your question. But we can at least answer the related question: "What are the potential factors that might have caused a decline in the use of 'subjunctives' in English?". Such factors include:

  • the fact that whether or not the "ordinary" inflected verb form is used doesn't seem to affect speakers' ability to interpret such verbs as mandatives: for example, if I say "They asked that he left. But he refused.", then, despite the form "he left", we don't perceive a contradiction between the two sentences and we understand that he didn't actually leave.
  • the fact that there are alternative constructions, e.g. instead of "They asked that he left", I could say "They asked him to leave".
  • differences in how prescriptive English education is in the two countries;
  • differences in attitudes towards avoiding "overly elaborate" English in the two countries (see the "Plain English" campaign);
  • the fact that the English 'subjunctive' is probably an artificial phenomenon in the first place (in its Modern English manifestation), so more subject to the whims of fashion than other more "core" language phenomena.

Now, one thing to bear in mind is that it's not entirely clear that the premise of the question is true in the first place. In other words, it isn't necessarily true that, in either variety of English, the 'subjunctive' forms have ever been terribly prevalent overall compared to other alternatives. Many commentators have had this impression, and talk about a supposed decline from an imagined golden era when the Modern English 'subjunctive' was prevalent. But it's not clear that actual data bears this out. What may be more the case is that, in both US and UK usage, the 'subjunctive' has had a marginal resurgence recently from a very low starting point, and that in the US that marginal resurgence has been ever so slightly less marginal. But it seems to depend heavily on what data you look at using what measurement methodology. In short, it's difficult to answer your question and pin down concrete triggers for a pattern when it's not clear what that pattern is in the first place.

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    I really don't think that U.S. schooling stresses teaching the subjunctive at all ... people just pick it up naturally. – Peter Shor Jan 4 '15 at 18:43
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    Is "They asked him that he left" actually perceived as grammatical by native speakers in the UK? Here it would not be. Visser spends a great deal of paper analysing historical and modern uses of the subjunctive across the centuries in An Historical Syntax of the English Language, although he calls this “modally marked forms”. Just in Modern English alone (maybe ~1550 – present), each century seems to see less of it. – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 18:57
  • @tchrist Agreed. Here I would expect either plain leave or, perhaps more likely in the UK, should leave. – Anonym Jan 4 '15 at 19:13
  • @Anonym Here simply using the infinitive is common in this situation, so “They asked him to leave” or “The judge asked the bailiff to remove the raving lunatic from the court”. Using “They requested that he be removed” might come across a bit formal or even stuffy-sounding, but it isn’t particularly rare here. However, we wouldn’t normally use should there, as that version to us sounds especially over-wrought and cumbersome and outdated, much more than the bare untensed subjunctive does. – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 22:34
  • @tchrist In the UK it would be a normal usage, including, say, in the formal written usage of national "quality" newspaper journalists. I should say, though, that actual corpus data suggests that it is also common in US usage. (That's not to say that in the UK you don't also find "...that he leave" -- that would also be perfectly normal, acceptable usage in a formal context-- it's just that either is perfectly possible.) – Neil Coffey Jan 4 '15 at 23:19

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