7

Consider:

I would rather the walls remain painted in a neutral tint.

Is this proper use of 'I would rather..', without an infinitive immediately following it?

EDIT This suggests that 'I would rather ...' is either followed by an infinitive or by an object (?) + past tense if you would want to include other people. But not the use I propose.

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  • 1
    This is a good example of a [misleading grammatical title](grammatical). This sentence has an infinitive in it, but it's normally treated as if it were a tensed verb in the "subjunctive", which of course is not correct. Jul 8, 2012 at 22:24
  • @TimLymington - that question deals with the (non-grammatical) construction "I rather" creeping into use as a substitute for "I would rather". Not the same question at all.
    – MT_Head
    Jul 8, 2012 at 22:26
  • I can't figure out what "without an infinitive" is supposed to mean here. This question certainly isn't a dup as indicated, because OP here does have a verb in "would". The example is unremarkable, and I think the question is General Reference. Jul 8, 2012 at 22:27
  • Without an infinitive immediately following it.
    – mvexel
    Jul 8, 2012 at 22:30
  • @mvexel: I'd rather you'd said that in the question. What makes you think there's anything odd about following rather with a [pro]noun? Jul 8, 2012 at 22:35

3 Answers 3

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This sentence is a proper use of would rather. And it contains an infinitive.

Would rather is an idiomatic predicate that means prefer, and has many of the same syntactic affordances and restrictions as prefer, although would rather doesn't use the infinitive complementizer to, while prefer requires it. Both are negative triggers and can trigger NPIs, for instance,

  • I would rather do anything else.
  • I prefer to do anything else.

In addition, both predicates can take a that-clause complement with an untensed verb:

  • I would rather (that) he sit down immediately.
  • I prefer (that) he sit down immediately.

  • *I would rather that he sits down immediately.

  • *I prefer that he sits down immediately.

The sentence in question is simply an untensed (i.e, infinitive) verb form in such a complement clause, with the that complementizer deleted:

  • I would rather (that) [the walls remain painted in a neutral tint].

Note that if you use a form of be instead of remain, you get the infinitive form be:

  • I would rather (that) [the walls be painted in a neutral tint].
  • *I would rather (that) [the walls are painted in a neutral tint].

There are a lot more infinitives around than one might suspect from Miss Fidditch's class.

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  • Given that "I would rather" indicates a wish, the subjunctive is not inappropriate, surely? How do you tell the difference between "be" as untensed indicative and "be" as subjunctive, since the forms are the same?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 8, 2012 at 23:11
  • 1
    You don't. Because if you can't tell the difference, the difference isn't there. They're both the same form. They just have a number of different uses, is all. Like the or of or that or which or to. "The subjunctive" is like phlogiston; an early attempt at explanation that didn't turn out to work. Jul 8, 2012 at 23:17
  • Except that the subjunctive does exist in constructions like "If I were...", so it might just as well exist here too. That is, once "that" is introduced, the mood changes. "He sit" and "the walls be" (or even "the walls were") are subjunctive constructions. I guess I disagree that a subject should have an infinitive indicative verb: perhaps I'm just reactionary.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 9, 2012 at 0:00
  • 2
    @Andrew Leach ‘. . . in English, “past subjunctive” forms are indistinguishable from past tense forms. We will therefore say that English does not have a past subjunctive verb inflection . . . The reason is that we cannot contrast a clause containing a “past subjunctive verb” with a clause containing a past tense form of the verb’. (‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’ by Bas Aarts) Jul 9, 2012 at 6:49
  • 2
    @Andrew Leach: As for the ‘were-subjunctive’, Huddlelston and Pullum don’t call it a subjunctive at all, using ‘irrealis’ instead. ‘Traditional grammar calls our “irrealis” a “past subjunctive” . . . But there are no grounds for analysing this “were” as a past tense counterpart of the “be” that we find in constructions like “It’s vital that he be kind to her”.’ Jul 9, 2012 at 6:54
1

Those so-called untensed verbs that - according to what is written above - could be admitted, are actually subjunctives. Their use in English is very rare and fading away but they're still subjonctives. The confusion is easy at first sight, because they keep the infinitive form whatever or whoever is the subject : I be, you be, he be, we be, you all be, they be.

1
  • Please add references to your answer.
    – CJ Dennis
    Feb 6, 2020 at 22:12
0

The use of the word rather as a verb meaning prefer is sometimes called verbal rather. The use you describe is one of a number of well-attested uses of verbal rather. There are actually two structures that your sentence might have:

  1. I would rather they remain painted...
  2. I would rather (that) they remain painted…

There are a number of other uses of verbal rather that are quite widespread throughout North American English. However, these uses vary in interesting ways across speakers and dialects. For more information, see the discussion of this phenomenon at the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project website, on our page for Verbal rather: https://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/verbal-rather.

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