I am editing a text in analytical philosophy, and I came across the following sentence:

Such a mechanism for a term’s designation makes it possible that the idea designated by the term be distinct from those assigned to the term.

As you can see, the clause following "that" is written in subjunctive mood. As far as I know, the subjunctive mood is used after verbs expressing a desire, a demand, a formal recommendation, or a resolve. In this clause, however, no verb of such nature can be found. That said, the sentence still sounds correct to me, and I don't think I should change it.

Can you explain which one (subjunctive or indicative mood) is grammatically correct in this clause, and why?

  • 1
    Does those assigned to the term refer to ideas? How can an idea be assigned to a term? And how do you tell if it's a different idea? Feb 2, 2021 at 0:30
  • 1
    The choice between the subjunctive and the indicative in this context is a matter of style; either would be grammatically correct, but the subjunctive may be perceived as more formal. and perhaps slightly old-fashioned. There is nothing in this sentence that would be in need of an extensive explanation so far as the grammar is concerned; while it may raise all manner of other questions, dealing with them would be outside the scope of this site.
    – jsw29
    Feb 3, 2021 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


This is very confusing as written, but that is not because of choosing the form of the verb in the subordinate clause. It’s not grammatically wrong as written, but I suspect it is semantically wrong.

I assume it is intended to be equivalent to

Such a mechanism for a term’s designation makes it possible for the idea designated by the term to be distinct from the ideas assigned to the term.

But even simplified that way it still makes no sense.

  • How can the idea which the term designates be different from the ideas which have been assigned to that term?
  • The term designates ideas or the term assigns ideas?
  • Or the ideas assign the term that designates the ideas?
  • Some ideas get to be different than other ideas, but which ones and why and how?

All this makes no sense to me. I'd love to hear from someone it does make any sense to.

  • Chances are that both designate and assign are used here in the ways that are highly context-specific, and that the author never intended this particular sentence to make sense in isolation from its context. Very many sentences that appear in philosophical texts seem nonsensical when pulled out of their context.
    – jsw29
    Feb 2, 2021 at 23:16

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