Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Let It Be

My posting of a few days ago made Jeff think about the use of be in sentences like Be it white or red, I like wine. "What is that?" he wrote. "Is that subjunctive, too?"

Yes, it is. On occasion we use be to convey that what we're talking about isn't presently happening -- in the case of your example, the wine in your sentence isn't now in your glass. Your use of "Be it" is short for "Whether it be," referring to a moment that isn't actually on the calendar.

We also use be inside ideas that follow suggest, recommend, ask, require, and demand. For instance,

The experts suggest (recommend, ask, require, demand) that we be careful when choosing a bottle of wine.

And we use be after words like important, imperative, critical, or crucial:

It's important (imperative, critical, crucial) that the wine be produced in a reputable region.

Some of us (and this is generational, I fear) use be after lest:

Lest you be fooled by an attractive bottle, read each label carefully.

Our use of subjunctive in all these instances makes a certain sense, for the clauses in question contain actions that are not presently occurring. But why do we use be (instead of were) to convey that message? The only distinction I can see is that actions depicted by be all live in the future, whereas actions represented by were reside (hypothetically, anyway) in the here-and-now. When we say "Lest I be late," we mean in the future; when we say "If I were late," we mean at the present moment. Apparently, that difference in time zone is reason enough to switch from were to be.

In case you are beginning to understand all of this, let's mix it up by looking at Shakespeare's use of be to indicate the present: "If music be the food of love, play on." Patrick Henry used be in the same way: "If this be treason, make the most of it." Those uses of be are short for "is considered to be," which is passive but present indicative (not subjunctive). There's still a hint of "I don't necessarily consider it such," but that innuendo comes to us via the passive voice, not subjunctive mood.

Most of us don't use be in the way that Shakespeare and Henry used it; we use it only inside ideas conveying advice or avoidance of unpleasant possibilities ("He recommends we be on time," "It's imperative that you be vigilant," "Lest I be considered greedy"). When there's an alternative involved, as in "Be it red or white," we often go for whether and present tense: "Whether it's red or white, I like wine." (That use of present tense means "all the time" or "true in general," rather than "happening now." )

If this be confusing, don't worry about it. Whenever be indisputably belongs in one of your sentences, it will knock loudly and wait confidently for you to open the door. Any word that raps lightly and then disappears isn't worth running after.

More questions? Don't be shy -- click on "Comments."

No comments:

Post a Comment