LAST week, toward the end of my column about wormholes in certain Supreme Court rulings and correspondence, I said that the unnamed letter-writer who brought them to my attention asked this devilishly equivocal grammar question: “What should the verb be in this sentence: ‘He insisted that she (stay, stays or stayed) in the house’?”
I replied that the answer could be the subjunctive “stay,” the indicative present-tense “stays,” or the indicative past-tense “stayed.” Since the explanation would involve some grammatical complexities, however, I decided to devote a separate column to it.
Let me start by rearranging the answer choices for that sentence: “He insisted that she (stays or stayed, stay) in the house.” This will allow us to discuss the more familiar grammar concepts first and work our way to the more complicated ones.
Recall now that there are three moods of verbs in English, mood being that aspect of the verb that expresses the speaker’s state of mind or attitude toward what he or she is saying. These moods are the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive. The indicative and imperative both deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations; in contrast, the subjunctive deals with actions or states as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a want, wish, preference, or uncertainty expressed by the speaker.
The most common and familiar of the three moods is, as we know, the indicative. It conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Indicative statements seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner; their operative verbs take their normal inflections in all the tenses and they follow the subject-verb agreement rule religiously.
Now let’s closely examine the sentence in question when it uses the first answer choice: “He insisted that she stays in the house.” This sentence is perfectly grammatical when it is said or understood as an indicative statement, where the speaker declares in a persistent but straightforward and truthful manner what he believes is an objective fact: that the female referred to currently stays—that’s the verb “stay” taking its normal present-tense inflection—in that particular house.
That sentence is also perfectly grammatical when said or understood as an indicative statement when the verb in the “that”-clause is in the past tense: “He insisted that she stayed in the house.” Here, the speaker declares in a persistent but straightforward and truthful manner what he believes is an objective fact: that the female being referred to stayed for some time—that’s the verb “stay” taking its normal past-tense inflection—in that particular house.
Finally, let’s closely examine the sentence in question when it uses the third answer choice: “He insisted that she stay in the house.” There’s now an apparent subject-verb disagreement in the “that”-clause between the singular “she” and the plural-form “stay.”
However, if that sentence is said or understood to be subjunctive, it would be grammatically and semantically correct. Indeed, one of the uses of the subjunctive is to denote a speaker’s insistence that a particular action be taken, not that it’s true or factual.
So then, always keep in mind this rule for subjunctive sentences with a “demand,” “require,”or “insist” main clause followed by a “that”-clause indicating the action to be taken: the operative verb of that clause always takes the subjunctive plural present tense (without the suffix “-s”) whether the doer of the action is singular or plural: “I demand that all of you leave right now.” “The company requires that all job applicants take an IQ test.”And, in the same token, “He insisted that she stay in the house.”
I trust that I have adequately clarified this particular form of the subjunctive.
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