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A question asked on another forum concerned the use of different verb forms in the subordinate clause in the following "mandative" sentences:

  1. It's important that you do not be late
  2. It's important that you not be late
  3. It's important that you are not late

It was interesting to me that the first option passed by a few native speakers as acceptable phrasing. Theoretically, "be" is not negated with "don't" in the present tense or subjunctive in English which means that it can't be understood as a tensed - present verb form, (We don't say: I don't be late but I am not late), or a subjunctive where the verb form is plain and it is negated with "not" (It is important that you not move the body part being imaged until the entire CT exam is complete.).

The only remaining possibility then is that "you do not be late" is an embedded imperative - "(You) don't be late" would work as a main clause. But the problem is that, as is claimed by linguists, imperative sentences cannot be embedded within a larger clause in English, they can only be used as a main clause. This would make it an odd quirk in the usage of imperative. The use of "do not be late" doesn't sound good to me, especially when the clause is not extraposed:

That you do not be late is important.

I'd appreciate if someone would explain this to me, and comment on the acceptability of "don't be" in this sentence.

  • "Do not be late" and "don't be late" are not necessarily the same. The former sounds natural if the speaker is stressing how important it is not to be late, the latter less so. – neubau Nov 11 '14 at 1:41
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As Darkgamma suggested, this is a subjective issue. The use of the present subjunctive is becoming less common in British English. While not everybody would agree with Somerset Maugham, "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible" (A Writer’s Notebook, 1949), probably not many people today would say or write It's important that you not be late. With other verbs, we simply say "It's important that you don't ...". As BE does not form a negative with DO, except for the imperative, the natural expression for BE in this construction is It's important that you aren't late. However, some speakers may produce It's important that you do not be late by analogy with all other verbs. This may be influenced by the negative imperative form 'Don't be late', which is similar in meaning, but I don't think we can say we have an embedded imperative here. ,

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  • Thank you very much tunny, that is exactly what I wanted to know. Can you tell me how frequent you think it may be in speech? I'm aware that the present tense form takes over in the mandative construction, as you noted, but I just wondered if "It is important that you don't be late" as sort of pseudo-subjunctive sounds a bit off or unexpected to you as it did to me initially? – user5492 Nov 10 '14 at 9:45
  • @RejlanGivens. Any claims about the frequency of this in speech would be only a guess, but it does not strike me as strange. – tunny Nov 15 '14 at 13:42
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  1. It's important [that you do not be late]. -- [? ? ?]
  2. It's important [that you not be late]. -- [subjunctive mandative]
  3. It's important [that you are not late]. -- [covert mandative]

Your last two examples (#2, #3) are unremarkable, and are completely acceptable in today's standard English. It's that example #1 that is interesting, and I'm assuming that is the one that you are mainly interested in discussing. Here are my thoughts on what the subordinate clause in example #1 might be.

Example #1's subordinate clause doesn't seem be an imperative clause for several reasons. (Though, the sentence does seem to be intended by the speaker to be a mandative construction.)

First reason: The analytic "do not" is of somewhat doubtful acceptability in (main clause) imperatives that have "you" as overt subject, e.g. "You do not be so cheeky". (Info borrowed from CGEL page 928-9.)

CGEL says on page 802-3 that:

  • "[ Analytic do not ] is particularly unlikely when the imperative has an overt subject, and in the case of you it can be regarded as ungrammatical: …"

and the ungrammatical example they provide is:

  • [9.ii.b] * Do not you renege on our deal.

Second reason: In imperative clauses, the versions that have an overt 2nd person subject ("you") would have the same meaning as those that have no subject and those that use a vocative. For instance:

  • a. "Come here." -- [no subject]
  • b. "You come here." -- [subject]
  • c. "You, come here." -- [vocative]

Those above three examples are basically interchangeable, especially as to their meaning; and also, I would expect all three versions to have the same level of acceptability.

But in example #1, its subordinate clause doesn't seem to have the same acceptability (nor, perhaps, even the same meaning) for the corresponding alternates:

  • 1.a It's important [that do not be late]. -- [no subject]
  • 1.b It's important [that you do not be late]. -- [original #1, subject]
  • 1.c It's important [that, you, do not be late]. -- [vocative]

Version #1.a seems to be completely unacceptable; and version #1.c seems weird--though, its subordinate clause does sound like it is an imperative clause. And so, the three subordinate clauses don't seem to be interchangeable here, and that gives more weight to not consider the original example #1's subordinate clause to be an imperative clause.

CAVEAT: Though, it probably should be pointed out that a main clause imperative in a coordination might not always do so well here either. (Examples of imperatives in a coordination: Say what you like, it won't make any difference; You do that again and you'll regret it; Do that ever again and I'll brain you; Act in haste and repent at leisure; Come over here and you'll be able to see better; You hurry up or we'll be late.) But from those examples, the only one that I'm seeing as being awkward is "You come over here and you'll be able to see better".

What it might be: Example #1 might be an attempt by the speaker to combine an emphatic DO with a subjunctive clause. That is, the "do" in "It's important [that you do not be late]" might be an emphatic "do"; though, it does seem to be unnecessary.

I'm thinking this because example #1 seems to convey the same meaning as the (subjunctive) mandative. Example #1 might look a little bit unusual, but otherwise, it doesn't sound too bad to me (AmE speaker).


Now, for your last question, which concerns the following example:

  1. It's important [that you don't be late].

This example is basically the same as your example #1, except that this example is using synthetic negation instead of analytic negation. Let's see how the three alternate versions ("you" as overt subject vs no subject vs vocative) look:

  • 4.a It's important [that don't be late]. -- [no subject]
  • 4.b It's important [that you don't be late]. -- [original #4, subject]
  • 4.c It's important [that, you, don't be late]. -- [vocative]

Version #4.a seems to be completely unacceptable; and version #4.c seems weird--though, its subordinate clause does sound like it is an imperative clause. And so, the three subordinate clauses don't seem to be interchangeable here. This is the same conclusion we had when we performed this test with example #1a-c.

The main difference between example #4 and your original example #1 is that example #4 seems to sound smoother (to me).


NOTE: CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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This is more of a subjunctive thing, with "it's important that you be late" vs. "it's important that you do not be late". Nothing imperative about it as far as I can tell except that it has the exact same form. It's probably sounding bad to you because the subjunctive is mostly obsolete and has fallen out of use but it's still there in places and native intuitions.

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  • That is exactly the problem: It's important that you not be late is subjunctive, where the plain verb form "be" is negated with "not". Theoretically we can either choose the tensed form of "be" (..that you are not late), or negate the plain form with "not" - "that you not be late"). "Don't be" falls in the middle between the two - we use non-tensed "be" and present tense negation operator "Don't" for verbs other than "be". I used the example with "move" in my original post to point up how the plain form is negated in subjunctive clauses, as opposed to the present tense form. – user5492 Nov 10 '14 at 9:27
  • I mentioned imperative because it is the only construction in English where "be" is used with "Don't". Otherwise "be" is negated with "not", whether tensed am not, are not, is not, and past was not and were not, or subjunctive and infinitival "not be". This would be an exception which should be grammatically explained in some way I guess, if it is a widely accepted usage of course. – user5492 Nov 10 '14 at 9:38
  • Hm, might be my bad then. One might be able to pin it to analytical leveling but beyond that I don't know – Darkgamma Nov 10 '14 at 9:45
  • Thank you Darkgamma. I am both interested to know about the grammatical explanation of this, but also how people feel about "..don't be late" vs "..not be late", and if that sounds jarring, and which one is intuitively more acceptable option. – user5492 Nov 10 '14 at 9:50
  • I personally felt "that you don't be late" as grammatical. Might be unusual but it also seems to work – Darkgamma Nov 10 '14 at 9:51

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