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the subjunctive
Doctor's surgery

Olly Jezek from the Czech Republic writes: Please could you explain how to use the subjunctive? E.g.: ‘It’s important that the lesson be funny.’ When should we use ‘be’ and why?

Maria Goranova from the Czech Republic asks: What is the use of the present subjunctive in modern English? Why is it possible to, and when is it possible, to ignore the subjunctive and use present simple or past simple instead? E.g.: ‘Why is it so important that he goes there?’ instead of ‘Why is it so important that he (should) go there?’ Also, what is the correct construction to be used in the so-called ‘that’ clause?

Sarai from Mexico writes: Could you please tell me how to use the verb ‘recommend’?

Roger replies: more questions
The subjunctive is used to express intention or proposal about the future. It requires use of the verb in its basic form rather than its normal tense form.

We don’t use the subjunctive very much in contemporary English unless we wish to sound very formal. With verbs like suggest, recommend, insist and adjectives like important, essential, imperative, crucial, vital, we often use should + infinitive instead of the subjunctive or we can use the normal tense form. The reporting verbs and adjectives above are normally followed by a that-clause in which that itself is often omitted.

In your example, Olly, ‘It’s important that the lesson be funny’ sounds too formal.
We would normally say: ‘It’s important that the lesson should be funny.’

Compare also the following:
  • The doctor recommended (that) he should give up smoking.
  • The doctor recommended (that) he give up smoking. (More formal)
  • The doctor recommended (that) he gives up smoking. (Less formal)
It + be + adjective: desirable/important/essential/imperative/vital/etc

In all of these examples below with should, you can substitute the subjunctive if you want to make it sound more formal or the present simple tense if you want it to be less formal:
  • It is essential (that) you should be given your medication by a properly qualified nurse. (Or: be given, or are given.)
  • For the future well-being of the company, it is imperative (that) he should resign now. (Or: resign, or resigns.)
  • It is desirable (that) he should be retained in custody, rather than released on bail. (Or: be retained, or is retained.)

  • It is vital (that) he should receive some treatment (or receive, or receives) whether he be (or is) innocent or guilty of this particular crime.
 
suggest/recommend/insist/demand

Similarly with these reporting verbs, we can use should, the subjunctive or the normal tense in the that-clause, depending on whether it is appropriate to sound formal or not:
  • The government tried to insist (that) all firearms should be handed in without delay. (Or: be handed in, or are handed in.)
  • The doctors have recommended (that) he should remain in hospital for a further three weeks. (Or: remain, or remains.)
  • I suggested he should leave right now. (Or: leave, or leaves.)
 
advise/ask/command/instruct/request/require/warn

Note that these reporting verbs do not require should or a that-clause and are normally used instead with a simple infinitive. The issue of whether to use the subjunctive or not with these verbs does not then arise.

Consider the following:
  • Her mother advised them to be home by ten o’ clock.
  • They required me to clean the house every Saturday.
  • You asked me to let you know how much it would cost.
  • I warned him not to swim where there were dangerous currents.
 
Were is also a kind of subjunctive when it is used with I and he/she/it instead of was with wish and in if-clauses.
If we use the more natural was, it will sound more informal.

Consider the following:
  • I wish I were (or was) home now.
  • I wish it were (or was) the weekend.
  • If I were (or was) you, I’d get in touch with Veronika before she leaves for Australia
  • If I were (or was) still living with John, I’d be much better off, but I wouldn’t be so independent.
 
fixed expressions with the subjunctive

There are a number of fixed expressions which require the subjunctive, including:
  • Bless you. (Which means: May God bless you.)
  • Long live our gracious Queen. (The first line of the British National Anthem)
  • A toast now: long live the bride and groom.
  • I have always supported you financially, but be that as it may, I can no longer support your current lifestyle.
    If I have to pretend that you no longer exist, so be it.

    Be that as it may means whether that is the case or not So be it means nothing can or will be done to change that
    .

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