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What goes in the blank here?

In order for your website to be modern and professional, it is my suggestion that every product ______ more detailed specifications....

  1. have
  2. should have
  3. shall have

My intuition is shall have, but I vaguely remembered that back in high school, my teacher said using past tense is a form of politeness and a sense of softened tone. But should seems to be more forceful, so what should I use here?

  • It's not past tense. It's a conditional. – Helmar Aug 29 '16 at 21:38
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    Actually, it's the subjunctive mood. Conditional would be "could/might/may have." – vpn Aug 29 '16 at 23:40
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As an American English speaker, I would definitely not use shall here. The context where I mainly see shall used are in technical standard documents, where it conveys an absolute requirement, not merely a suggestion.

As for should, in other varieties of English, should might convey a conditional, but in American English it will be understood to indicate a preference, making the suggestion firmer rather than softer.

The example as you presented it seems fine to me.

To soften the language even further, you could use could or might:

...it is my suggestion that every product could have more detailed specifications.

Could conveys a possibility or an option, so it makes the suggestion even weaker. However this softens the suggestion so much that it might appear you lack confidence in it yourself.

As was pointed out in the comments, this is not using the past tense, but the subjunctive, which is used to speak about possibilities rather than known facts. In English the past and subjunctive forms of can are the same: could. similarly, the past and subjunctive forms of shall are both should.

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    I agree. But I don't see what is uniquely American about it. Your points would equally be valid in Britain. However, as the sentence carries the word suggestion (as opposed to a number of less deferential alternatives), I think it is perfectly polite as it stands. – WS2 Aug 29 '16 at 21:47
  • @WS2, I believe that Brits use shall a lot more freely than Americans do. But I don't speak BrE, so I didn't want to answer as if I had authoritative information about something I don't know much about. – The Photon Aug 29 '16 at 21:48
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    Well, in the OP's sentence, I would never use shall have to replace have. And if I saw it written it would appear quite foreign to me. – WS2 Aug 29 '16 at 22:09
  • @WS2, shall is practically unused altogether in AmE. So for an AmE audience it seems foreign almost no matter how you use it. Certainly there's room for someone to add another answer explaining the difference between shall (indicative) and should (subjunctive) in case OP is addressing an audience where shall isn't simply foreign in itself. – The Photon Aug 29 '16 at 22:49
  • Should isn't the subjunctive. It is a modal verb in its own right "used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness" (Oxford Dictionary Online). It is also the past of shall (Merriam Webster Online). I don't quite see how one could avoid altogether the use of shall. This excerpt from Oxford Dictionaries Online describes how it is used. – WS2 Aug 30 '16 at 8:21
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You seem to have realized that suggest that something ᴠᴇʀʙ doesn’t take a normal third-person singular inflection. Good for you.

Suggest is a verb that takes a stuffy subordinate clause, with a “modally marked” verb, meaning either a bare infinitive or one prefixed by an actual modal. This is what used to be the old present subjunctive in English and related languages, but we use the bare infinitive for it now because there’s no special inflection for it any longer.

Your original with have is perfectly grammatical, although I might shorten it up a bit:

For your website to be modern and professional, I suggest that every product have detailed specifications.

That’s pretty stiff and formal. Your second choice, should have, is probably even stuffier, but you can use its should to come up with something simpler and more direct:

For your website to be modern and professional, every product should have detailed specifications.

Or even:

Every product needs detailed specifications for your website to be modern and professional.

(That’s my own preferred formulation here.)

Your final version with shall doesn’t really sound right. This could be appropriate in legalese where shall carries the weight of must, but that doesn’t make sense for a suggestion, only for a demand or order or requirement.

  • I accept your grammatical points entirely. However on the matters you describe as stuffy, my own view is that the word suggest (or suggestion) carries the gentility of your argument. As long as it is there it doesn't much matter what follows, it cannot sound dictatorial since it is only a suggestion. Remove it, and you then face a struggle to make should, or shall sound less than dogmatic. – WS2 Aug 30 '16 at 8:11

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