Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I’ll Be Nice If You Be Nice

Posted by Neal on November 13, 2006

Sometimes Doug and Adam will negotiate as they choose their characters for a two-player videogame. Doug will say, something like,

You be Luigi, and I’ll be Mario.

No problem. Other times, though, he’ll say stuff like this:

I’ll be Mario if you be Luigi.

Whoa, is Doug resurrecting the archaic present subjunctive of be? No; he and Adam also say things like this:

I beed Mario.

It’s so wrong, and yet so sensible. Look what happens if you put in the ordinary form of be in that second example:

I’ll be Mario if you’re Luigi.

It makes it sound like Adam either is or is not Luigi right now, and if Doug finds out he is, then Doug will be Mario. But it really means, “If you choose Luigi, I’ll choose Mario.” I’m sure linguists have a name for this version of be, but I don’t feel like looking it up. I’ll just call it volitional be. Now that I think back on it, lots of ordinary-sounding uses of be fall into the picture, too. All the times Doug said

I was being Mario and Adam was being Luigi

it looked like an ordinary be, appearing in the participial form being, but it was really a camouflaged volitional be. If it were just ordinary, linking verb be, then that sentence would sound as odd as

?I was being tall.

That one only works if the speaker is talking about standing on a chair or walking on stilts or something. For that matter, how could we ever give a sensible imperative with be (Be there, don’t be a jerk), if it didn’t denote an action that the hearer could consciously take?

I was reminded of volitional be by a couple of recent (or at least recently viewed by me) posts on some linguistics blogs on LiveJournal. One was from Grey-Eyed Athene, who wrote:

The prof’s saying that “most of the time ‘n’ sits there and bes ‘n’.” That’s one of those constructions I wish I were grammatical for me, because it’s annoying saying “and continues to be…”

Notice that she realizes an ordinary is just won’t do the job of imputing obstinance to the N that just sits there; to do that, she needs to have continues to be. The other post was from the Absent-Minded Linguist, who wrote:

Yesterday, as we were walking back from class, Lia said something about the second be in ‘I’ll be nice if you be nice’ being a subjunctive. My non-stative be alarm went off, and I said that I don’t think it’s actually subjunctive, I think it’s something else. I asked what she would say if it was 3rd person instead of second person – how she’d complete ‘I’ll be nice if he…’, and she said, with little or no hesitation, ‘I’ll be nice if he bes nice’, and actually considered that to be an acceptable form, without backtracking and saying it was ungrammatical. I’ve observed 3sg bes in running speech before, but I’ve never had it returned to an inquiry before, nor has anyone ever admitted to me before that they find it grammatical.

Have any of you heard volitional be spoken in a form like Athene or Absent-Minded heard it, where it wasn’t disguised as ordinary be (i.e. in a participle, gerund or infinitive)? In other words, we’re looking for bes or beed, and be in places where you’d expect am, are, or is.

8 Responses to “I’ll Be Nice If You Be Nice”

  1. Ran said

    Here in the Midwest, we say “I’ll be Mario if you’ll be Luigi.” It’s not specific to “be,” though; we also say “I’ll do it if you will.” (In general, we use the future tense in both protases and apodoses that indicate terms of an agreement. Except if they’re set in the past, of course, in which case both use the conditional: “I said I’d do it if he would.”) Is that not how it works in other dialects?

  2. Ran said

    Also in the Midwest, “was being” doesn’t necessarily imply volition; one could easily say, for example, “Sorry, I was being stupid when I said 2 + 2 =’d 5. I meant, of course, that 2 + 2 =’d 4.” The main use is to indicate that an ordinarily-long-term descriptor is being applied only in a short-term sense (“I was being stupid” implies that I’m not usually stupid). (This is ignoring the straightforward use in passives, “it was being done” being the passive of “_ was doing it” and so on.) Again, is that not how it works in other dialects?

  3. Russell said

    As Ran noted, the “volitional” -be- is (I believe) a stage-level predicate, whereas the “linking” (light, support, “copular”) -be- can connect to either a stage- or an individual-level predicate (I was stupid back there, I was tall back then).

    The question of when the volitionality meaning is likely/preferred is interesting. Certainly if its under a volitional predicate, it’s easy: try to be, promise to be, [self] will be, etc. Same goes for imperatives, and the like (be nice, the boss said to be nice).

    [Be is also featured in one of my favorite question-only constructions: “who BE X to Y”. Who are you to criticize me? I’m your dad (???to tell you what to do)]

  4. Ran said

    By the way, I think the term you’re looking for is “lexical be”: .

  5. Ran said

    Second try:

  6. Neal said

    Russell: Thanks for the clarification on volitionality and individual-/stage-level predicates.
    Ran: Note to myself: Even when I’m too lazy to do a serious search for something related to English linguistics, at least reach for my CGEL that’s sitting *right there* and see what it has to say! Thanks for following up.

  7. Mark Cobb said

    Since I read this post a few days ago, I’ve had the urge to use these wacky “be”s twice already. Here’s one:

    This discussion seems to support Gee’s sense that getting recognized in particular contexts is important work for us, something close to our hearts– rather than a mere matter of selecting the appropriate slang for each situation. It’s not just that one speaks Italian when in Rome, to be in Rome one must become an Italian-speaking person, even if it is “that annoying guy with the American accent”. We don’t just play our roles, we be them.

  8. Neal said

    Hey, good one!

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