To be or not to be

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Curious?A reader asked me to explain the verb be:

1.To be truly brilliant, an essay needs to utilise the right language.
2. Do not worry be happy.
What parts of speech ‘ to be ‘ belongs to and how to use it? I would be grateful if you could elaborate on the uses of be.

Although a thorough explanation would probably take a whole book, I gave him this brief explanation.

There is a lot to be said about the verb “be”.

First, as a verb in its own right, it usually is considered as a connecting verb (also known as a “state of being” verb). This is the usage in your first example. In the formation you use, it’s a little hard to see the connection between the subject (essay) and its adjective (brilliant). A similar but much simpler usage could be: “The essay is brilliant.” The verb “is” (present tense of the infinitive “to be”) connects the subject and the adjective which describes it. In your sentence the opening phrase uses the verb in its infinitive form.

In the second sentence, the verb is in the imperative form. The imperative is a command given to a person. Since it’s always in the second person (spoken directly to the receiver of the command) it is the only form in English that dispenses with the use of the pronoun. Here’s a more awkward form in which I’ll supply the pronoun: You must not worry yourself, you must be happy. While happiness is not generally something one can command in another, a much more common command using the verb “be” is “Be quiet!”

The verb “to be” is conjugated in the present tense as:

  • I am
  • You are
  • He/She/It is
  • We are
  • You are¬†
  • They are.

However, in the (not frequently used in English) subjunctive, the verb conjugation is as follows (I’m adding “if” because the subjunctive is used to indicate a state of wishfulness):

  • If I were
  • If you were
  • If he/she/it were
  • If we were
  • If you were
  • If they were

Notice that in the subjunctive there is only a slight difference from the past tense, which occurs in the first and third persons singular:

  • I was
  • You were
  • He/she/it was
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

In some cases in the subjunctive, we actually use “be”:

  • Be it resolved…
  • Be that as it may…
  • Far be it from me…

These are all set expressions that have not evolved along with the language. They are difficult to explain to English language learners since they appear to violate normal rules of usage.

Further, the verb “to be” is frequently used as an auxiliary verb (or a modal verb) to create a verb tense.

It is used with the present progressive.

  • I am writing a blog post.
  • I was going to the store when the rain started.
  • He will be flying to Los Angeles tomorrow.
  • I have been editing for 30 years.

It is used to express expectation.

  • He should be finished working by now.
  • The goose will be cooked at 5 p.m.
  • The spy will have been caught by the time we cross the border.

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