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Could someone enlighten me and explain the grammar behind this sentence:

The chair was donated to the Museum on the condition that no one sit in it.

Why isn't it 'on the condition that no one sits in it' or 'on the condition that no one can sit in it' ?

Is this the same structure as when using words like 'demand' as in 'I demand he not sit in it' ? I don't really get the grammar here as well and have been using it like that because I read it a few times. So, I would be more than happy if someone could explain this as well.

Thank you in advance!

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Your sentence reveals what traditional grammars call the subjunctive mood in English.

In the subjunctive, we use the unmarked infinitive of the verb, in this case (to) sit.

The chair was donated to the Museum on the condition that no one sit in it.

Thus, the word sit in your sentence is not the first person singular, present tense form of the verb (as in I sit there) but the unmarked infinitive or base form.

There are many verbs and expressions in English that reveal what we call the subjunctive. We use it to talk about conditions that aren't true, and in requests, wishes, and commands. (Note that on the condition that expresses a command, however gently!)

The subjunctive is fast disappearing from English (and many new grammars hold that it never existed in the first place.) It would be perfectly normal, correct, and expected to see your sentence written as:

The chair was donated to the Museum on the condition that no one sits in it.

There are many verbs and expressions that can reveal the subjunctive, and there are many lists of these verbs and expressions. One useful list, with a discussion and examples of the subjunctive, is here.

  • If grammars claim that it never existed in the first place, how would they say things like 'Donna requested Frank come to the party' or ' I suggest he study' ? – Chris Nov 7 '16 at 4:40
  • @Chris Very astute, and not answerable in 650 characters, I'm afraid. If you're dedicated, you might start with John Lawler's post here and proceed from there. Let's just say that to someone who studied Latin, what we call subjunctive seems to "act like" a true subjunctive, and so that tail wagged the dog. But read Lawler et al. – P. E. Dant Nov 7 '16 at 4:45
  • I'm not really sure how to interpret John's post. If there was no such thing as a subjunctive mood, why are there even 'rules' that tell us that sentences like 'If I would have known, I would have said something' are sloppy and informal and should look like this 'if I had known, I would have said something' ? – Chris Nov 7 '16 at 6:41
  • @Chris This is a deep subject. Mr Lawler provides a list of ELU questions in that post. If you read them all, and really research the issue, you'll understand. Try this for starters, maybe. – P. E. Dant Nov 7 '16 at 6:54
  • @Chris You may be approaching this from the wrong direction. The "Subjunctive" usages you cite in your last comment are still better written than their "non-subjunctive" counterparts. The issue is in the labeling of the usage as subjunctive. Latin had a true subjunctive, as did Sanskrit, but English has none. Instead we use modals and verb forms to approximate a subjunctive mood. That's why it's impossible to formulate any useful "rules" about the way the "subjunctive" is formed or performs in English. (This is a very deficient shorthand elucidation, inferior to Lawler's in every way.) – P. E. Dant Nov 7 '16 at 8:41

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