As short as it is, the verb ‘be’ has a range of meanings and uses that have developed over the last 1,500 years. It is—after ‘the’—the second most frequent word in the English language, and if you’re not afraid to use it, it can help you become a better writer. For National Novel Writing Month, we’ve laid out the various uses of ‘be’, taken from the Story of Be, to help aid you with your writing. Take a look at the list below and explore some of the different shades of ‘be.’
To be or not to be
The bare be. Capable of being used as a single-word sentence—in grammatical terms, as an imperative. For those imagining a primordial act of creation, a word that brings everything into existence.
Business is business
To identify someone or something, or to assert an identity. Or as the OED definition puts it: ‘To exist as the person or thing known by a certain name or term; to coincide with, to be identical with.’ That seems to sum it up.
I am to resign
When ‘be’ is followed by an infinitive, it often expresses obligation or necessity. If chairman John returns to his office after a board meeting and announces ‘I am to resign’, the implication is that he has no choice in the matter, that circumstances have put him in this position.
The verb ‘be’ has a remarkable history, and a wider range of meanings, uses, and forms than any other English word.
Has the doctor been?
In the form has/have/had been, and followed by the preposition ‘to’ before a noun phrase, ‘be ‘takes on the meaning of ‘gone to visit’ a place. We’re unlikely to use it for unexpected or unwelcome visitors. In talking about a burglary to a neighbor, we could easily say ‘The police have been.’ But would you ever say ‘The burglars have been’? Unless it was a regular occurrence….
How are you?
‘Be’ is the default verb when we want to express the idea of being in a particular condition, as when we make a general enquiry about health or the weather.
I’ve been with someone
For centuries, a sentence such as ‘I’ve been with someone’ could only have had an innocent, traveller meaning, with the geographical destination known from the previous context. But during the early nineteenth century, ‘to have been with’ developed the meaning of ‘to have had sexual intercourse with.’ It was a euphemism that well suited the Victorian era because its ambiguity conveyed a sense of mystery.
Wannabes and has-beens
It wasn’t until the 1980s that somebody in the USA first used wanna with ‘be’ to form a noun—a ‘nominal’ use—meaning (as the OED definition sedately puts it) ‘an admirer or fan who seeks to emulate a particular celebrity or type, esp. in matters of appearance or dress.’ The Spice Girls seemed to bring the usage to a peak with their hit song Wannabe in 1996, but the word continues to be popular.
You’re cheeky, you are
Colloquial speech often repeats a form of ‘be’ as a way of adding emphasis or drawing special attention to something that’s been said, or is about to be said. The emphatic use has been recorded since the early nineteenth century, and appears with all persons. It was a major hit when Gloria Gaynor recorded (…), to the delight of the international gay pride movement: ‘I am what I am / And what I am needs no excuses / I deal my own deck sometimes / The aces something the deuces.’
So I was, like, ‘wow’
Exactly where and when the usage actually began isn’t known—presumably during the 1970s—but what is clear is that it quickly spread, becoming a feature of ‘Valleyspeak’ or ‘Valspeak.’ Although ‘like’ has been the word that has attracted all the publicity, it’s the ‘be’-form that gives it the force of introducing a quotation (‘quotative like’)—something that would normally be shown in writing using inverted commas. Not everyone shares the gloom of those who see quotative forms as a sign of poor speech ability. It’s an increase—a tiny one, but an increase nonetheless—in the expressive richness of English.
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