Subjunctive in noun clauses



When we teach noun clauses, the question of the subjunctive comes up after verbs such as insist, as well as after phrases like it is important. We actually teach our students to write sentences like these:

The football coach insists that each player get eight hours of sleep per night.

It is important that you be on time.

However, I find that native English speakers often don't use a subjunctive, and prefer:

The football coach insists that each player gets eight hours of sleep per night.

It is important that you are on time.

Are they just plain wrong, or is the subjunctive slowly dying?

Julia Cayuso
Coral Gables, FL


There's no doubt that the subjunctive is being used (and taught) less and less in American English, and I believe the same to be true of other varieties around the world. However, because it is still considered correct in most written and formal spoken English, it should be given some attention in upper-intermediate to advanced courses.

Barbara Matthies


I have often wondered the same thing. I agree with Barbara about the advisability of teaching the subjunctive. I would not describe the subjunctive as exactly dying; it's just quite formal, and formality in our world is not increasing!

The subjunctive mood in a noun clause that + the subject + the simple form of the verb comes after certain verbs, as in sentence (a), and adjectives, as in sentence (b):


Her father insists that she speak English well.


it's absolutely essential that the meeting begin on time.

It is very effective in establishing a sense of urgency in a formal manner.

Alternatively, you can use many of these verbs—such as require, urge or ask—in a less formal manner in this construction: verb + the noun or pronoun object + the infinitive, as in the sentence:


University rules require a player to keep up in his academic studies.


I asked him to help me.

Another alternative with some of the verbs is to use a gerund or a gerund phrase, like this:


I recommend telling the truth.


I asked him to help me.

The adjectives of urgency (vital, essential, important, etc.) are often used in a less formal way, too: using the construction for + noun or pronoun object + infinitive, as in these examples:


It's important for you to be on time.


It's essential for the handicapped to have special access.

I've put some of the verbs and adjectives that can be used with the subjunctive into a chart, which also shows alternative ways to express the same idea. Note that two of these verbs—suggest and insist—can also be used with the indicative, with a diferent meaning.

Also see Marilyn's explanation. More…

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