Author Topic: Retrospective: Dealing with questionable or downright wrong legalese - III  (Read 12127 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
A devilishly equivocal English grammar question
(3rd of a 3-part series)



Last week, towards 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 sometime—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.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 11, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: February 23, 2018, 12:03:24 AM by Joe Carillo »

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
Re: A devilishly equivocal English grammar question
« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2015, 08:47:35 AM »
A response to “A devilishly equivocal English grammar question” when it appeared in the online edition of The Manila Times:

Brian Fernandez says:
April 11, 2015 at 3:20 pm

I think the prospective confusion is the reason why some writers or speakers use, for example, “He insisted that she does stay in the house,” to give emphasis to an indicative present tense statement; or, “He insisted that she did stay in the house,” in the case of an indicative past tense.

Reply
jose carillo says:
April 11, 2015 at 5:24 pm

You’re absolutely right, Brian! Thanks for that grammatical insight.

aurorariel

  • Initiate
  • *
  • Posts: 12
  • Karma: +0/-0
    • View Profile
Re: A devilishly equivocal English grammar question
« Reply #2 on: May 21, 2015, 08:26:41 PM »
Very interesting- the speaker may intend to use indicative present, indicative past or subjective--where the verb takes on the form of an infinitive with "to" being dropped.   

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
Feedback from Justine Aragones, Forum member (February 26, 2018):

Sir, regarding your article about proofreading questionable or downright legalese, It may not  always be the lawyers or judges who commit grammatical mistakes in their resolutions or decisions, it might be the stenographer who is assigned to take the dictation and transcribe the order or decision of the judge. Stenographers must also be refreshed in the use of English which is so important in their work. What do you think?

My reply to Justine:

You're right that everyone involved in the documentation process for court proceedings and legal documentation should be adequately knowledgeable about English grammar and usage--from lawyers and judges all the way to stenographers and proofreaders. But the ultimate responsibility for the grammatical, semantic, structural, and factual correctness of a final or published legal document lies in its author or ponente. It really is bad policy and bad form to make stenographers and proofreaders scapegoats for the bungled English of those documents.