insisted that he leave/left [Present / past subjunctive]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by javox27, May 4, 2013.

  1. javox27

    javox27 Member

    Montevideo, Uruguay
    Rioplatense Spanish
    Hi everybody! I know that a lot has been written about this topic, but the use of the subjunctive still confuses me, mainly because my mother tongue (spanish), like most romance languages, has a very complex set of verb forms for this particular mood, and it's asbolutely necessary to use them in many situations. However, in English the subjunctive looks exactly the same as the indicative is most cases, specially in the case of the past subjunctive, where only the verb "to be" has a distinctive form.

    So, considering the sentences:

    1)They insisted that he leave
    2)They insisted that he left

    I know that most Americans would use 1, which uses the present subjunctive, and consider number 2 to be wrong, while most British people wouldn't have a problem with number 2, and would even consider number 1 to be rather formal or stiff. So here goes my question: Why do the Americans use a present subjunctive like leave for a situation in the past? In the same way, isn't the left in number two perfectly valid (albeit ambiguous) as the past subjunctive of the verb "leave"? After all, we use the past subjunctive all the time in the second conditional (If I had enough money, I would...), with the verb to be (If I were rich...), and in phrases like "I'd rather he went home"(He didn't go home and he's still here, so went is in the subjunctive mood).

    In the same way, I've stumbled upon sentences like this: "They demanded that he be banned". Why can't we say "They demanded that he were banned"?

    Thank you very much in advance!
    Last edited: May 4, 2013
  2. Giorgio Spizzi Senior Member

    Hullo, javox.

    In English, the Present (tense) of the Subjective (mood) is used in subordinate clauses which refer to both present and past time:

    1. They insist that he leave
    2. They insisted that he leave

    The form, as can be seen from the above pair, is identical with the base form of the verb (the so-called bare infinitive). Obviously, when the verb is "BE", all the forms are — consistently with the rule — "be".

    The Past (tense) of the Subjective (mood) is often called the were-subjunctive, because this is the only form in which there is a distinction from the indicative, and then only in the first- and third-person singular. It is used with present reference and future reference (not with past reference).

    Therefore I suspect that, at the present stage of the development of the language, "They insisted that he left" simply doesn't exist ... as an illustration of the use of the English Subjunctive. I say this because in other cases the sentence would be perfectly grammatical: "They insisted that he left at eight-thirty but there's no evidence of it" or, maybe better "They insisted that he had left at eight-thirty but there's no evidence of it".

    All the best.

    GS :)
    PS I'm struggling with the subtle, but diabolical, differences between Italian and Spanish subjunctives... :)
  3. javox27

    javox27 Member

    Montevideo, Uruguay
    Rioplatense Spanish
    Thank you all for your answers!

    Well Giorgio, according to some respectable sources, the use of left and other past forms as a past subjunctive is quite common in Britain. In fact, it's more common than the present subjunctive, which is considered rather formal by some people. Here are my sources: ; (look for the word left and you'll find the discussion between British and American usage).

    So that is what creates my confusion. The British seem to be using a past subjunctive (indentical to the indicative, I admit), for situations in the past, which is perfectly logical to me, because in my language, I would never use a present subjunctive for a past event, like most english speakers seem to do. It is indeed possible to use a past subjunctive for the present or the future (like if I were you), but if you are talking about the past, you always use past subjunctive forms. Of course, no confusion is possible because they are different from the indicative. In addition, the British also use should to avoid to problem altogether: "They insisted that he should leave" or "I insisted that he should stop phoning me". Yet to me, this doesn't solve the problem, and I don't think I'd ever use that construction, given my economical approach to everyday speech:D

    Well, I don't know, perhaps I'm being too picky...
    Last edited: May 5, 2013
  4. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    I'm not certain that what you describe as a past subjunctive is actually a subjunctive. It seems to me that BBC is listing three distinct possibilities here:
    Suggest is one of those verbs of advice that cannot be followed by the more usual pattern of object + infinitive but has to be followed by a that-clause with should + infinitive or with past, present or subjunctive form verbs.

    I would use the present subjunctive with insist, if I were saying that they were telling him to go. If someone use the past tense [insisted that he went], I would normally understand them to be reporting a factual event; they strongly asserted that he had gone.

    Not being a speaker of BE, I can't explain their use of the past in this construction. Here is a relevant previous thread: "insisted/suggested/complained" + MOOD
  5. javox27

    javox27 Member

    Montevideo, Uruguay
    Rioplatense Spanish
    Thanks a lot for that information Cagey! That previous thread explained it very clearly. Now I understand that the present subjunctive is used regardless of the time of the action.
    However, I find it strange that you don't recognise that left can be seen a a subjunctive, in the same way that won in If I won the lottery (Everybody understands that I didn't win it), or went in I'd rather he went home (Nobody would think that went is indicative here). All these actions didn't happen, they are unreal, therefore we are dealing with a subjunctive. I concede that it looks exactly like the indicative, but that can also happen to the present subjunctive in sentences like "I suggested that they leave". Also, in phrases like "It's about time you got up earlier", the got is in the past subjunctive. It's very well explained in this book made for teachers by Cambridge University: objective first subjunctive&f=false
    Last edited: May 5, 2013
  6. Giorgio Spizzi Senior Member

    Hullo again, Javox.

    In our languages, it's common/normal to use the Past Subjunctive in sentences which, once they've been translated into English, have the following structure:
    "If I knew Russian I'd find a well-paid job as an interpreter with a bank near my place". The form "knew" (= know + ED) is simply the "distant" form of "know"— a form used to talk about either the chronological past (time) [When I was young I knew Russian] or about a counterfactual present (time) [If I knew Russian...(now)].
    We could say, therefore, that the -ED* form of the English verb has specialized in the expression of either a different time in the real/actual world or the same time in a virtual world.

    (*) is obviously just an icon representing "what happens to a verb when it passes from the base form to the form of the preterite"
    GS :)
  7. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    I understand that 'left' can be a subjunctive in some contexts. It's just that I don't think it's being classified as a subjunctive by BBC. My sense is that 'insist' is felt to be form of speech, and that leave is being back-shifted in tense as is customary in reported speech in the past. However, that is just a supposition from the outside. As I said before, I don't speak BE, and so I don't know how speakers of BE experience that construction.
  8. javox27

    javox27 Member

    Montevideo, Uruguay
    Rioplatense Spanish
    All right, now I get it. I guess I'll have to change my speech according to the situation . And of course, I should stop applying a spanish logic to the english language. Thank you all for your help!:)
    Last edited: May 6, 2013
  9. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    You need to distinguish between two very different situations:

    1. "You must leave - we insist that you must go now!" = They insisted that he leave (AE) / should leave (BE) immediately.
    2. "He has already gone - we're certain that he left ten minutes ago!" = They insisted that he left (AE) / had left (BE) ten minutes earlier.

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