‘Be that as it may’ – a little language exploration Parts 1+2

New English word? Translate any word using double click.

Posted on February 1, 2022

This topic came up rather spontaneously in one of my advanced classes and definitely relates to a more advanced language issue. I wanted to post the topic anyhow. But since we haven’t yet finished with our language exploration, I will divide the post up in two parts. The second part will reveal the grammar point in question and elaborate a little.

In the text from The Case of a Tennis Player you find the sentence:

Judge Anthony Kelly’s ruling that Novak Djokovic be freed to contest the Australian Open overruled the government’s insistence that he should be barred for failing to prove he is exempt from being inoculated against Covid-19.

It was the BE in be freed that was unfamiliar, and the questions asked were: Why not is freed or should be freed?

Let’s do some language exploration to see if we can find out what kind of structure this is, and if we can find some similar patterns. Glosbe.com is a great web site for that.

Note: Glosbe.com can be used similarly to the function of a corpus in linguistic research. Corpus linguistics is a branch of linguistics in which language researchers use huge collections of language (corpora) to explore patterns of language use; for instance recurring patterns of words or phrases, or collocations – words and phrases that occur more commonly together than others.      

It is important to keep in mind that a linguistic grammar is not the same as the ‘grammar’ students of English encounter in school (though there are overlaps). A linguistic grammar is more comparable to an anatomy in medicine: it is meant to be a comprehensive resource of description. It is not a rule book in the sense of what is or is not allowed to be done, meaning: it does not intend to tell speakers or learners of a language what they should or should not say. And there are different kinds of ‘grammars’ as there are different approaches to modeling a language or language in general.

In comparison, a teaching grammar or pedagogical grammar is one that tries to simplify syntactical or lexico-grammatical structures of a language to make learning the language easier. It too is meant to describe recurring patterns of a language for a learner to observe and practice. The patterns presented are mostly basic, (though not necessarily under the aspect of most commonly spoken or written), at least for the beginning stages of learning.

Because of the significance of evaluation in our school systems – testing and giving learners grades – school students are confronted with concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that at times seem too ‘black or white’, and do not account enough for language variation and flexibility.

One of the first principles ‘hammered’ into first year students of linguistics is the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ‘grammar’. Linguistics is the science of language. As with every scientific research, the idea is to observe and describe.

One differentiation made is between Grammar as Fact and Grammar as Choice (See Michael Lewis, The English Verb, ch.5). Some structures are considered standards of a language. Deviations or variations may occur, but they are not random. To give an example: a well formed English question would be: “Are you coming?” But you might also hear someone just say: “Coming?” where the question is expressed by intonation only. So when asking questions, we have choices of how to formulate them.

In comparison, changes in word order patterns might not be so flexible: Work do we day every eight hours for* would not be considered an acceptable sentence of English by anyone. We have fewer choices when it comes to word order in English and encounter more examples of Grammar as Fact.

Let’s come back to the question from above and collect some examples.

Let’s start with


We find examples like:

  1. They ruled that out as a cause;
  2. The judge ruled that her case was insufficient to grant a divorce;
  3. It ruled that defendants could be prosecuted only for their actions, not for their beliefs.

No structure like the one in our text, so let’s change the search a little and put in the phrase

ruled that he be freed

  1. In November, (…), the High Court ruled that he be released.
  2. The court was not convinced and ruled that he be kept in custody until the deportation….
  3. But it must be against all the rules that he should be there alone, with no staff present.
  4. On October 2014, the Spanish court ruled that he would be expelled to Russia but not extradited to Georgia.
  5. (…) a US judge ruled that he should be reinstated.
  6. (…) the judge should have ruled that he be placed in custody.

In which sentences do we find the structure we are looking for?

Now let’s check some other verbs followed by that….

  1. demand/ed that …
  2. require/d that…
  3. say/said that…
  4. suggest/ed that…
  5. insist/ed that…
  6. order/ed that..

1. In August, Roosevelt and other officers demanded that the soldiers be returned home.

2. Andrea, our personal history demands that I bring this to you first.

3. I do not remember,” Graceus said slowly, “who it was first suggested we demand that Garian abdicate.”

4. We welcome the Assembly’s resolution demanding that Israel stop and reverse its
construction of the wall.

5. We must denounce and condemn those atrocities and demand that the aggressors be stopped.

Do the same for the next three



Tasks and further questions

  1. Describe, compare, and analyze the examples above.
  2. Describe the differences between the examples under ruled and the others; structurally and semantically.
  3. Were there any (structural) differences between the single words you checked?
  4. Have you ever heard of the concept of mood? How many moods does English have? What do they express?
  5. And how do they differ grammatically?

There are some verbs, adjectives and nouns that are followed by the construction

THAT + subject +bare infinitive

Read the passage below from Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman, The Grammar Book, An EFL/ESL Teacher’s course

Verbs, adjectives, and nouns taking subjunctive complements

For a small class of English verbs that take THAT-clause object complements, the subjunctive form of the verb is used in the object complement. This is indicated by the lack of the –s inflection for third person singular verbs and by the use of one form (i.e. BE) for all persons when the BE copula is used:

Other verbs in this class are: advise, ask, command, demand, forbid, move, order, request, require, and stipulate. Some of these words permit an alternative way to express this same meaning, although the addition of should does seem to soften the speaker’s request:

Wesuggestthat she leave the arrangement to us.
Werecommendthat Alex be the chairman.

We suggest that Alex should be the chairman

Also, a few of these verbs can be used with a for complementizer plus an infinitive and still retain a similar meaning.

We propose for Alex to be the chairman

The latter two constructions may be ways of avoiding the use of the subjunctive, which may seem overly formal and thus make some native speakers of English uncomfortable. (…)

Check Indicative and Subjunctive — Original English (original-english.com)

And    Subjunctive Mood in English Grammar (lingolia.com)

And What is the Subjunctive Mood? An Explainer | Merriam-Webster

To make a long story short and come back to the form in question in the sentence:

Judge Anthony Kelly’s ruling that Novak Djokovic be freed to contest the Australian Open overruled the government’s insistence that he should be barred for failing to prove he is exempt from being inoculated against Covid-19.

BE FREED is the verb in subjunctive mood. If you checked all the sources above, you will now know that English is described as having three different moods: the indicative mood, the subjunctive and the imperative mood. Some include the interrogative as a fourth.

What is behind this classification or: what characteristic or feature does the category of mood describe?

Grammatically, a verb in the subjunctive mood is hardly recognizable. The English verb does not undergo a lot of inflections anyhow. In the socalled ‘simple present’, the only change we find is the -s added to the third person singular. And not all native speakers do even that (or they add an -s to other grammatical persons).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.