The other day at work I was drafting an internal procedure and wrote, “It is important that the Department create procedures to . . .” After having showed it to my boss, he mentioned that there was a typo or grammatical error, and that it should have read, “It is important that the deparment creates procedures to . . .”
I read the sentence over a couple of times and was convinced that my version was correct, and that the difference in conjugation was due to the fact that the sentence was imperative and required the use of the subjunctive. I was told that that might in fact be the case, but that I should still change it to “creates” because everyone who would read the document would see it as an error. I normally don’t argue (outside of this blog) unless I am pretty confident of my position.
So I showed it to our Bearded Canadian and to an American intern who just joined the team. The Bearded Canadian said that both were correct but that “creates” was more correct. The intern said that only “creates” was correct. One problem was that the subject of the sentence “department” could be miscontrued as being plural, thus making “create” sound acceptable. That was not satisfying me. I don’t like to pluralize singular enties like companies, departments, or groups. An example would be when talking about a company and saying, “they make good coffee”. A company is singular and “it would make good coffee”.
For the time being, though, it appeared that I had lost the imperative battle to get the subjunctive “create” into my draft, as I had the only other two native speakers in my building against me. What happened next was pretty standard — I was up all night analyzing the variables. Why did it sound good to me if it was incorrect? Why did I think it was subjunctive when I have never really studied the subjunctive in English. As a matter of fact, my English classes in first and secondary school never really focused on grammar. I had only learned about grammar when I studied Spanish.
There was a time probably in my junior or senior year of college when I was fascinated with grammar and thought that grammar was like the theology of language. I even tried to read Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, probably only because I liked the title, and to be honest, I can’t really remember anything about it. That means I probably never got very far. But I remember thinking that grammar had as much of an influence on how we perceived the world as did our religion, political system, or other social factors. It came first. It was the mathematics of how we constructed our words, how we organized our verbal thoughts, and how we perceived ourselves in relation to our actions.
For example, in Spanish you can free yourself of all accountability by using the passive voice and by making verbs reflexive. So instead of dropping a glass, the glass falls from you (“se me cayó el vaso”), or instead of pressing the send button by mistake, it pressed itself on you (“se me apretó el botón”). In English, the passive voice is also used to change the responsability of actors. How many times have you read headlines like “Woman Raped” or “Man Slain”. Notice that its appears as if the woman or man were the actors and the culpable instead of the victims. (Which brings me to another question: Why did I even allow myself to start a sentence with “It is . . .” when I personally deplore this sentence structure?)
Back to my sleepless night: I played with a bunch of different scenarios in my head to see whether the verb should conjungate in the subjunctive:
- It is important that he grow up healthy
- It is important that he grows up healthy
- It is esssential that she go to the hospital now.
- It is essential that she goes to the hospital now.
- It is impertive that I be happy.
- It is imperative that I am happy.
Each option seems be correct, but one is imperative while the other in informative. It is like saying “It is important to go to the dentist” versus “It is important that he go to the dentist”.
In any event, I finally decided to search grammar pages on the Internet and finally found some revindication:
Use the simple form of the verb. The simple form is the infinitive without the “to.” The simple form of the verb “to go” is “go.” The Subjunctive is only noticeable in certain forms and tenses.
The Subjunctive is used to emphasize urgency or importance. It is used after certain expressions (see below).
- I suggest that he study.
- Is it essential that we be there?
- Don recommended that you join the committee.
The Subjunctive is only noticeable in certain forms and tenses. In the examples below, the Subjunctive is not noticeable in the you-form of the verb, but it is noticeable in the he-form of the verb.
- You try to study often. you-form of “try”
- It is important that you try to study often. Subjunctive form of “try” looks the same.
He tries to study often. he-form of “try”
It is important that he try to study often. Subjunctive form of “try” is noticeable here.
Expressions Followed by the Subjunctive
The Subjunctive is used after the following expressions:
- It is best (that)
- It is crucial (that)
- It is desirable (that)
- It is essential (that)
- It is imperative (that)
- It is important (that)
- It is recommended (that)
- It is urgent (that)
- It is vital (that)
- It is a good idea (that)
- It is a bad idea (that)
- It is crucial that you be there before Tom arrives.
- It is important she attend the meeting.
- It is recommended that he take a gallon of water with him if he wants to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, even though I was correct from the beginning, we went with the non subjunctive version. You don’t want to confuse the non-natives. I thinking I be losing my English. Good thing that ain’t so.
6 responses to “It is Imperative that I Be Subjunctive”
Thanks a lot for clearing this up for me. Have been browsing the web for way too long without a decent result. However, I am still not sure whether the subjunctive also applies to situations with impersonal nouns, i.e.:
It is imperative that HE focus on the facts
It is imperative that THE CAMPAIGN focus on the facts
What would you write (in case of native English speakers)?
So glad to see I’m not the only one! I was just writing a letter, including the sentence “It is imperative that he rectify the situation.” but Word loudly announced that it should be “rectifies”. How are people supposed to produce correct grammar when even their computer programs tell them they’re wrong?!
Good one. “It is necessary that it be there.” This has been bending my mind for quite some time, and I have read some “new” grammarians who say that certain of the rules no longer matter because nobody seems to know or care any more. While it’s important (I suppose) that language change, to some extent, why not keep track? Thanks for the pointers. At least the subjunctive tense isn’t as vexing as the proper use of “shall.” Someone should look that one up and get back to me…I was mortified when I realized I needed a PhD in etymology just to get started. Peace out.
Thank you! I will use you blog entry in my TOEFL preparation class today! Keep the faith. There are others out here looking for subjunctive validation!
I’m a non-native speaker and definitely think that your boss is very wrong. It is imperative that he speak English properly. 😉
In Shakespeare’s time, you could also find the subjunctive, which is nothing less than the bare infinitive (infinitive without to) after certain expessions :
1-I think it be no other but e’en so. (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1, Page 6)
2-But masters, remember that I am an ass, though it be not
written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.(Act 4, Scene 2, Page 4)
3-Say that she be ; yet Valentine thy friend survives. (The Two gentlemen of Verona, Act4, Scene 2)
4-Father Baptista, I charge you see the he be forthcoming. (The taming of the shrew, Act 5, Scene 1, Page 5)
5-Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of cheese! (The merry wives of Windsor, Act 5, Scene 5)
5-Unless he have a fancy to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is.(Much ado about nothing, Act 3, Scene 2)
6-(…) for she’ll be up twenty times a night, and there will she sit in her smock till she have writ a sheet of paper: my daughter tells us all.(Much ado about nothing, Act 2, Scene 3)
7-I think it be two o’clock. (Henry IV, Part I, Act 2, Scene 4)
8-(…) and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell. (Henry VI, part II, Act 4, Scene 7)
And many, many more especially associated with if.
God save the subjunctive !
And for the past subjunctive :