A question closed recently as proofreading asked about the grammaticality of the following subjunctive statement: They suggested that the washing machine not be put in that place.

To my ear, that sounded about right. But a comment was even more interesting: To me, this sentence is ungrammatical—it should be “…that the washing machine be not put there”.

This intrigued me, as intuitively I would not think to reverse the OP's order of not and be.

With very limited google-fu, I found sites that listed the negative in the subjunctive before the verb, but without explanation.

  • The boss insisted that Sam not be at the meeting.
  • She insisted that he not be present.
  • Fred advises that Sue not take this job.
  • They advised that he not return to work until fully fit. (<- BBC Learning English)

And finally (heart sinking) even found it here on EL&U where it was addressed in comments, but the accepted answer had zero votes.

Be not on the other hand, sounds fine in the imperative:

  • If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night A. II, S. V.

In the Bible, it seems angels and others are always commanding us to be not afraid:

And the angel of the Lord said unto Elijah, Go down with him: be not afraid of him. And he arose, and went down with him unto the king.

Is there any reason besides the beauty of Early Modern English that be not might be respectably used with the negative subjunctive?

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    Both are grammatical, both will work and make sense, though some may argue there's a subtle difference in meaning. One can find both forms in regular use, though I am not checking their trends over time.
    – Kris
    Apr 28, 2015 at 5:18
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    @curiousdannii: what would you call the construction "I insist that he think of a name" instead? Apr 28, 2015 at 14:51
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    @curiousdannii: but 400 years ago, the subjunctive in English was much more like the subjunctive in other languages. What has happened is that most uses of the subjunctive have become archaic, and what is left (hypothetical conditional statements and wishes/orders/requests with certain verbs) are two unrelated-looking constructions which are not that parallel with the subjunctive in other languages. But the subjunctive in all these languages is descended from the original subjunctive in (I believe) Indo-European. so it's not something else entirely. Apr 28, 2015 at 15:32
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    As the maker of the original comment, I feel I have to backpedal a bit. Having mulled it over, the version found in the other question is not actually ungrammatical to me, though I do still find it more awkward and less mellifluous than the reversed version. But ungrammatical was going too far. Apr 28, 2015 at 19:17
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    @curiousdannii Subjunctive is such a wishy-washy term that refers to so many different things in different languages (just think of the Modern Greek subjunctive, which has very little to do with anything irreal—or indeed the Irish one, which in the present is a hortative and in the past a habitual) that it actually makes good sense to use it in English. It is not encumbered by referring specifically to a certain concept that doesn’t exist in English, but liberated by meaning so many different things that you have to learn what it refers to in every language individually. Apr 28, 2015 at 19:24

2 Answers 2


To address the question:

Is there any reason besides the beauty of Early Modern English that be not might be respectably used with the negative subjunctive?

In Early Modern English, the not was placed after the verb when using the subjunctive. There are numerous examples from Shakespeare, such as

Now I'll tell you without asking: my master is the great rich Capulet; and if you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.

It didn't change until the early 20th century in the U.S. Consider this Ngram. I would guess from the Ngram that in the U.K. (among those who still use the subjunctive), some people still put the not after the verb.

(The Ngram gives a number of hits where the not modifies an adjective, such as

it is not enough that the minister be a loving person, ... that he be hospitable, that he be not litigious, ...

but removing these would only strengthen the case made by the Ngram.)

  • Good point, thanks. I guess I was referring to the familiarity with and the fondness for earlier writers, like Shakespeare, Donne (Death be not proud is a favorite of mine), Burns, and others. But, yes, I was aware of a more recent shift. Apr 28, 2015 at 19:19
  • Love the edit! :-) Apr 28, 2015 at 19:20

The reason for 'not be' is the norm for the subjunctive is that 'not' there negates the verb 'be'.

When a finite verb is to be negated, the dummy do is employed, as in "Don't go there". Although the finite verb 'be' does not require the dummy do, as in "I am not afraid", the finite verb 'be' in the imperative mood does require the dummy do as in "Don't be afraid".

And the 'Be not afraid' example is not an exception to this dummy-do employment. Rather, it's simply that it's not the finite verb 'be' itself that is being negated by 'not'. If anything, the 'not' is there to negate 'afraid'.

When a non-finite verb is to be negated, on the other hand, the dummy do is not employed. Hence, the natural order in which 'not' precedes the non-finite verb that it negates, as in "Not being afraid is what you lack", "Not being afraid, you went there alone", "Not going there alone shows that you're afraid", "I went there alone in order not to show that I was afraid".

Now, the present subjunctive is sort of a cross between finite and non-finite. The clause containing the present subjunctive is a finite clause in the sense that it acts like other finite that-clauses. The verb form of the present subjunctive itself, however, is non-finite in that it is the same as the infinitive form, a non-finite verb. So, the fact that 'not be' is the default order for the negative subjunctive may be inherent in this non-finite property of the present subjunctive itself.

Having said that, I don't see why 'be not' cannot be employed in the subjunctive at least syntactically, especially if the speaker wanted to negate not 'be' itself but what follows it such as "afraid", as in "Is it imperative that thou be not afraid?". If indeed 'be not' in the subjunctive sounds unnatural to the ears of native speakers, and/or if it is unidiomatic, it's mainly because there is no semantic motivation to adopt the unusual syntactic order when such a change in syntax doesn't make any semantic difference.

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    Everybody speaking English before the 20th century put the not after the be in the subjunctive. See Ngram. They still often do in the UK. Apr 28, 2015 at 14:44

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