Robert’s Rules and Subsidiary Motions

By C. Alan Jennings, PRP, PRP

A group using Robert’s Rules gets things done through motions. A main motion generally proposes that the group take some action, but the real work often is done through subsidiary motions that propose changes to or actions upon the main motion. Arriving at a final disposition for a motion can (and often does) require one or more subsidiary decisions.

If you’re following Robert’s Rules, each type of subsidiary motion has a rank, or order of precedence. The following table shows the purpose of each type of motion from lowest rank to highest:

Common Uses for Subsidiary Motions
To Accomplish This . . . Use This Motion. . .
Avoid taking a direct vote on a motion Postpone Indefinitely
Change the wording of the motion Amend
Have a committee discuss a motion in detail and come back with
a recommendation
Commit or Refer
Discuss a motion later in the meeting, or maybe put it off
until your next meeting
Postpone to a Certain Time (or Definitely)
Provide for a certain amount of time for discussion of the
motion, either for the subject matter or for each speaker
Limit or Extend Limits of Debate
End debate on the motion and vote now Previous Question
Stop dealing with the motion temporarily to allow something of
an urgent nature to be done immediately
Lay on the Table

Note that all the subsidiary motions outrank the main motion, which has the lowest rank of all. This means that voting on the main motion is in order only when no subsidiary motion remains to be decided.

The following figure illustrates in more depth the key needs and characteristics of each type of subsidiary motion:


Sooner or later, every motion is disposed of, which doesn’t mean that they get tossed out; in this context disposing of a motion means making a decision about it so you can move on to the next item of business — disposing of a motion is the end result of all the talk.