Thursday, March 03, 2011

Mandating the subjunctive

The other day at the school council meeting, the principal of my kids' school told us that the board "mandates that there is" ...I forget. I was just struck by that is. Even knowing full well about the decline of the subjunctive, that sounded weird, so I made a note to follow it up and then tried to refocus on the topic at hand.

It turns out that mandate does indeed demand that its complement content clause be subjunctive (i.e., mandate that there be). In the COCA, there are 38 hits for verb mandate followed by is, but not one of them is in a complement clause and every mandate is a participle, for example:
  • One energy conservation measure now essentially mandated by law is use of smaller cars (60 days). 
  • this would set a bad precedent for mandating a vaccine which is not spread through casual contact 
In contrast there are 80 instances of be, and most of them, like the following examples, turn out to be relevant:
  • This mandates that responsible engineers be employed by the city. 
  • ... mandating that the snakes be released after the hunt at the place of capture 
The only other option is in the passive construction where you end up with an infinitive such as:
  • the program is mandated to be cost neutral 
The link is less strong following adjectives such as important. Here, we still find a majority of the relevant instances of the verb be employ subjunctives clauses:
  • it is important that assessments be used only for those purposes for which they were designed 
  • it's important that there be accountability 
But there are many relevant hits with indicative causes too:
  • for the U.S. role to be effectively played, I believe it is very important that there is coordination and agreement 
  • It's important that any changes are implemented to ensure that change doesn't cause distress.
This topic ties in nicely with the most recent "Grammatically speaking" column's "Brain teaser", which I think describes the situation well, and links to an interesting post on Nigel Caplan's blog.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

English speakers really are unused to a word's form being crucial to its role. Pretty much only past tense and the possessive case still do that - and the possessive's -s has expanded its role dramatically, able to attach onto extremely long phrases (even those including clauses) (the man that lives next door's car got stolen). It's not surprising that we're letting if do the heavy lifting of the past subjunctive, and just letting verbs like mandate do much of the work in the present.