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During an interview of Antonin Scalia by Charlie Rose, Scalia criticized the grammar he heard on a commercial flight:

"It's required that your luggage is under the seat in front of you"

Would it be more correct to say:

"It's required that your luggage be under the seat in front of you"?

Why or why not? Thanks.

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  • The second would be subjunctive. It is MUCH more formal and by now, most people would think you made a mistake and not that you used the correct mood. Feb 16, 2016 at 5:26
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    @laureapresa: that depends on what dialect of English you speak. In New England, where I live, people use the subjunctive in sentences like this all the time. Feb 16, 2016 at 5:31
  • @PeterShor interesting, I lived in NY and I only found it in writing. BTW, Welcome to english.SE mattliu! Feb 16, 2016 at 5:35
  • This question also gives a bit of history Feb 16, 2016 at 5:38
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    The second conveys the intended meaning, since it indicates where your luggage should be. "It's required that your luggage is..." doesn't really make sense. Regardless of where it is, under the seat is where it should be. Scalia was right. Feb 16, 2016 at 5:41

2 Answers 2

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Excuse me sir, do you know where your luggage should be right now? Do you not realize that it is required that your luggage be stowed under the seat?

As opposed to:

Excuse me sir, do you know where your luggage is right now? Do you not realize that it is required that your luggage is stowed under the seat?

That last phrase doesn't seem to flow or make as much sense. It doesn't carry the same weight and doesn't seem to communicate that it's the passenger's responsibility to make sure it is.

Using be carries the idea of where the luggage belongs, where it should actively be placed, as to where it can be found. If it isn't under the seat in front you, you should be putting it there!

^_^

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  • That last phrase in your second example. My brain hurt after reading. Indeed nice explanation.
    – Grizzly
    Feb 16, 2016 at 6:54
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    @Grizzly You can thank Armstrongest for neglecting the use of the connotation "it's" in the phrase (for your headache) :)
    – Scott
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:53
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    @Scott That's true. Indeed that is true! No contractions for me!
    – OneProton
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:55
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I hope the purpose of the announcement is not to accuse passengers of having their luggage in the wrong place, but rather to ask them to put it in the right place.

It's required that your luggage is under the seat in front of you"

means that the luggage should NOW be there. If it is not there the passenger has already not met the requirement, and it is rude for the airline employee to suggest that.

"It's required that your luggage be under the seat in front of you"

informs the passengers of the requirement that the luggage should SOON be there, and this is much more polite as it is asking the passenger to do something to meet the requirement (put the bag in the right place) rather than implicitly criticising him/her for not having already done it.

So, yes, I think the second is much more polite.

However the main problem applies to both versions. The requirement is not on the luggage to be or move anywhere, the requirement is on the passenger to put it there. So it would be much better to say

Passengers are required to place their luggage under the seat in front of them

or more politely

Passengers are requested to place their luggage under the seat in front of them

or better still

Ladies and gentlemen, please place your luggage under the seat in front of you

as this directly addresses the passengers rather than speaking about them, or their bags, in the third party.

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  • Very good point about the politeness level! I agree with you that the direct request is preferable for clear and concise communication. However, I do think that addressing the luggage in this case shifts the tone from instructive to passive. Directing the request towards the issue and not person I feel is a question of etiquette. It would be interesting to see how different language-speakers phrase this. My guess is that Japanese attendants speaking in English would prefer to state the issue, while German attendants might directly request the passengers to stow their bags.
    – OneProton
    Feb 16, 2016 at 20:07
  • @Armstrongest - I see your point. In many cultures directly asking someone to do something is rude. I spent a few months in Japan. One colleague kept telling me he knew I was much too busy to visit his home. I became a little exasperated. If he didn't want to invite me then fair enough, but just don't keep rubbing it in. It was much later I learned that actually, from his point of view, he was inviting me. I was expected to reply that not at all, however busy I might be, I would love to visit his home. Differing linguistic usage is so fascinating.
    – davidlol
    Feb 18, 2016 at 0:50

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