Do they mean something like "please go! You must leave!" or could it be "We assure you that he left"?

  • That person would say "They insisted that he leave" (not "left"). It means they threw him out.
    – Robusto
    Aug 20 '15 at 0:06
  • @Robusto In BrE too?
    – Centaurus
    Aug 20 '15 at 0:08
  • 2
    We assure you that he left; we insist on going on record. Only. It's not subjunctive, because left is past tense, and insist takes a tenseless infinitive to mark the subjunctive, like They insisted that he leave. Aug 20 '15 at 0:08
  • 1
    It's ambiguous and non-idiomatic. If they were insisting that this persona non grata had already vacated the premises it would be "The insisted that he had left." While that's what the original statement appears to mean, it's non-idomatic nature leaves one wondering if the other meaning were intended (especially when coming from someone who apparently does not speak English well).
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 20 '15 at 0:58

Noting that @tchrist assures us there can be no ambiguity in AmE, I feel I should post the contrary position. Which I can't substantiate as representing BrE in general, but it's certainly how I see it.

There's no doubt the untensed "infinitive/subjunctive" They insisted [that] he leave only ever means that what they demanded (of him, or whoever controlled his actions) was that he should leave.

But to me at least,...

She insisted that we went into the house and shared the meal they were just about to have.

...is perfectly acceptable. But if it weren't for this question reminding me of a possible (perverse) interpretation, it would never occur to me to think it might mean she insistently claimed later that this is what happened.

In short, I don't think it's particularly uncommon (or generally perceived to be a significant error) to use X insisted that Y Z'ed to mean they were adamant that Y should do Z (was required to, at the time). The alternative interpretation - insistence that Y did in fact do Z - may be equally credible in some contexts, so I would simply say the construction itself is inherently ambiguous.

  • 2
    Dissenting opinion here about Am English -- I've never heard anyone do this with the meaning Fumble gave. Aug 21 '15 at 20:54
  • @aparente001: I must admit I'm rather surprised by the reaction here (two downvotes, as of now). Obviously I'm aware of the strict grammatical position, and I assume OP is too. But I got my cited example by searching Google Books for insisted that we went. Three of the four results where the full context is accessible are for the supposedly "incorrect" sense - in my book it's unquestionably "ambiguous". Aug 22 '15 at 11:46

In American English, there is no ambiguity. There is no issue with it being idiomatic; it is. Your sentence is in the indicative for us:

They insisted that he left.

That version always means that they are assuring you that he has indeed departed. It is a done deal.

Had we meant the other thing, we would have said this, using an untensed verb in the subordinate clause to indicate subjunctive effect:

They insisted that he leave.

Which means that they had demanded his departure. Whether he actually left or not is unstated.

  • 1
    I do not think this is uniquely American. I see no difference here, in the way the two separate ideas would be expressed in Britain.
    – WS2
    Aug 20 '15 at 16:07
  • @WS2 Here is what I read about it: "Paralleling the American retention of the mandative subjunctive ("They insisted that he leave") is a British innovative use of the indicative in such expressions: "They insisted that he left."" From the answers and comments I've read so far, it seems ths innovative use does not exist. (?)
    – Centaurus
    Aug 20 '15 at 16:23
  • source page 180.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 20 '15 at 16:31
  • 2
    @Centaurus Well I'm no linguistics scholar, but to my way of thinking it would mean that they were insisting to others that 'he' had left. e.g. *they insisted, to the policeman's enquiries, that the suspect left at 10.30pm'
    – WS2
    Aug 20 '15 at 16:32
  • I now realize that I've so phrased my question that it allows for two correct answers, one AmE and the other BrE. I'm sorry that I can accept only one. Thank you for your answer @tchrist.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 21 '15 at 23:13

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