The (North) American English Mandative Subjunctive in the 21st Century: Revival or Remnant?

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The English mandative subjunctive has had a checkered history, ranging from extensive use in Old English to near extinction by Late Modern English. Then, in a dramatic (if still unexplained) reversal, it was reported to have revived, notably in American English, a scenario which is now widely endorsed. Observing that most references to this revival are based on the written language, we sought to replicate this result in contemporary North American English speech. Finding little evidence of the mandative subjunctive in contexts where revivalist claims would predict it, we next attempted to contextualize the current situation by tracing the trajectory of the mandative subjunctive back to the 16th century via the speech-like portions of two major corpora of English. Adopting a variationist perspective, we carried out systematic quantitative analyses of the morphological form of verbs embedded under large numbers of mandative subjunctive triggers. Results show that selection of the subjunctive was already both sparse in terms of rate and sporadic in terms of triggers as far back as the Early Modern English speech surrogates investigated, and far from reviving over the course of the 20th century, has remained that way ever since. We implicate methodological inconsistencies, in particular violations of the principle of accountability, in the disparities between the findings reported here and the consensus in the literature with respect to the evolution and current status of the mandative subjunctive in North American English.

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