I have several questions about the subjunctive. Are these two sentences both correct?

The police insisted that the car were removed.

The police insisted that the car should be removed.

Do those two sentences above share the same meaning?

What about these next two below?

It is important that you (should) go.

It was important that you (should) go.

According to my research, even if the latter has a past meaning, it's correct to use the BASIC form of the verb, the root, as this is a mandative subjunctive. Am I correct or should I have written:

it was important that you went.

If I am correct, then the second sentence in the first set of examples must be wrong.

  • 2
    Are you talking about formal American English? Formal British English? Colloquial British English? I think these all treat the subjunctive differently. But "The police insisted that the car were removed" is wrong in all of them. If it's the subjunctive, you need be or possibly should be. If it's the indicative, you need was. – Peter Shor May 22 '17 at 12:37
  • @WS2 In North America, at least in formal and educated speech, we make a strong, contrastive distinction for these two cases. We use the bare infinitive when insist is governing a subordinate clause where someone is demanding for something to be done, but when using an inflected verb in a subordinate clauses governed by insist, we are making an asseveration as to the truth of the proposition, not a demand for its completion. – tchrist May 22 '17 at 12:56
  • @PeterShor I am sure you are right. To tell the truth I was not entirely happy when I wrote that. Hence I am going to delete it. But I am interested in tchrist's point too. – WS2 May 22 '17 at 13:54
  • @tchrist I am puzzling over the "inflected verb" case. Would that be something like "He insisted the teacher were wrong in her assessment"? I would actually use was in that instance. – WS2 May 22 '17 at 14:07
  • 1
    @WS2 That one has to be was; your intuition is of course correct. :) – tchrist May 22 '17 at 14:40

No, those are wrong. The so-called "mandative subjunctive" never takes a past-tense inflection of the verb in Modern English. It always takes the bare infinitive. These are both mandative subjunctives, despite the main clause’s verb being in two different tenses:

  1. This morning the police are insisting that the car be removed. [unreal case]
  2. Yesterday the police were insisting that the car be removed. [unreal case]

You don’t ever inflect the subordinate clause's verb in a mandative subjunctive. You don’t use was and you don’t use were; you use be. If you don’t use be there, then it is not subjunctive.

That means that these are completely different in meaning:

  1. It was important that you went. [real case]
  2. It was important that you go. [unreal case]

Sentence 3 is the real case because it has a verb inflected into its past tense: you actually went.

Sentence 4 is the unreal case because it has the bare infinitive; you may well have gone or you might not have, but that is not the point here. The point is that the importance was being placed not on your actual departure, but on the requirement of your going.

You can rewrite 3 and 4 using an explicit auxiliary to show the two opposing senses more clearly if you wish:

  1. It was important that did go. [real case]
  2. It was important that you should go. [unreal case]

Now sentences 3 and 5 mean the same as each other (real case) and sentences 4 and 6 mean the same thing as each other (unreal case).

This is not the way it works in Romance languages like French or Spanish, but it is the way it works in English.

  • So, while speaking, Were I to choose between " you went or you go", it would depend on what I want to say – Francis Rick Onorato May 22 '17 at 12:41
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    @FrancisRickOnorato That's exactly correct. It does indeed depend on what you want to say. – tchrist May 22 '17 at 12:42
  • You forgot to give him the sad news that enormous numbers of people in the U.S. don't use the subjunctive. (I don't know about UK English speakers.) – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 3:24

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