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In "How I met your mother" TV series, there is a character Barney Stinson, who is the author of this semi-popular quote:

When I'm sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. [sic!]

Obviously, this is grammatically incorrect, because infinite form of the verb can't be used this way. However, I would like to understand why is it phrased this way. After googling a little, I found a few places where people were saying that it is slang.

One of the best (in my opinion) comments also mentioned that

What he meant here was "I stop being sad and choose to be awesome instead." If he said "I become awesome" it would change the meaning. He does not mean that he stops being sad and begins to work on growing more awesome, but that he is awesome.

which, based on the character, seems very plausible. Now, what I really want to know is:

  • is this really some kind of slang, or is it just something the scriptwriters invented?
  • how would a native speaker understand the meaning of the phrase without any context?
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My gosh, just stop theorizing about it already.... It's Barney Stinson people. When he is grammatically incorrect, he stops being grammatically incorrect and be awesome instead. True story. Get it now? –  user61006 Dec 31 '13 at 11:06

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Consider:

I am awesome.

This is a general statement of my state, claiming that it is awesome.

I start being awesome.

This is a claim that I move into the state of being awesome; I was not awesome before, and then I am. It also suggests a degree of agency (I am active in being awesome).

I am being awesome.

This is a rephrase of the first using a doubling of to be to add an emphasis on my agency in being awesome. It's rarely sensible, often awkward, and once very controversial even in more complex forms ("You will be glad to hear, under my own hand (though Rice says we are like Sauntering Jack and Idle Joe), how diligent I have been, and am being." - Letter from John Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds, July, 1819).

Here Keats at least has the excuse that he wants to combine both "have been" and "am being", though some would still say he should have said "...how diligent I was, and am".

Now consider:

When I'm sad, I stop being sad and start being awesome instead.

Standard English, and reflecting a degree of agency, along it being a change of state.

When I'm sad, I stop being sad and am awesome instead.

A change of state is implied by the rest of the phrase, but not by "am awesome" itself. There's nothing to hint at a degree of agency other than it being claimed as a general policy toward sadness. There's a clash between "stop being" and "am", bordering on syllepsis.

When I'm sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead.

A stronger emphasis on agency, and combines both a claim to always be awesome and a claim to actively be awesome in response to sadness. Be is clearly not used normally, but favouring it over am ties it to the earlier being in a use that again is close to syllepsis.

It's certainly not playing by the rules, but that fits the character, and it's all the more effective for that.

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1  
Great answer, thank you. –  SingerOfTheFall Feb 20 '13 at 13:20
2  
That's how I love my language: grammatically wrong, but perfectly understandable and arguable. –  Joachim Sauer Feb 20 '13 at 13:23
    
Would you mind to comment on the followin construct combined from the original quote and the quote from Keats? When I'm sad, I stop being sad and *am being* awesome instead. Wouldn't it keep the emphasis on agency while somewhat featuring a less confusing grammar? –  fgysin Feb 20 '13 at 15:03
    
@fgysin its a mix of tenses and aspects that pushes beyond it again, and perhaps a bridge too far, even for Keats. "I have stopped being sad and am being awesome" reigns it back in a bit though. –  Jon Hanna Feb 20 '13 at 15:07

It is slang, because the show is a sitcom (situation comedy) where many phrases used are not gramatically correct, but it's fine for us native speakers because we (mostly) understand.

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It's not grammatical to say I be awesome but be awesome is allowed in sentences that aren't in simple present tense. Consider:

I'm going to be awesome tomorrow

or

I will go to the party and be awesome

or

I don't have to be sad, I can be awesome instead

Sure, these have "going to", "will", and "can" kicking around, but those are markers of the not-present-tense state of the sentence. And in Barney's sentence, the "whenever I" construct is doing the same thing. He could have said:

When I'm sad, I stop being sad and sing instead.

And if he did, that sing would not at all be the same as

I sing

rather closer to

I sing in the mornings

English doesn't put as many suffixes and similar markers on words to help you notice they are in difference tenses, but they are nonetheless, and "be awesome" is allowed here even though it's not allowed in simple present tense.

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This answer doesn't make any sense. You quote infinitive cases of ‘be’ in contexts where an infinitive is expected, then present tense cases of ‘sing’ where present tense is expected, and then claim that's why an infinitive is allowed in this case, where a present tense (or at least some inflected form) is expected. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 31 '13 at 11:42

Consider this sentence:

S1: When I'm angry I growl and snarl, but that disturbs my neighbors, so I stop being noisy and be quiet instead.

It could also be this:

S2: When I'm angry I growl and snarl, but that disturbs my neighbors, so I stop being noisy and start being quiet instead.

I suppose it could also be this:

S3: When I'm angry I growl and snarl, but that disturbs my neighbors, so I stop being noisy and {I'm / am} quiet instead.

Different syntax means different usage rules: S1 doesn't contain the word start but S2 does, and S3 changes the grammatical structure of the sentence. All of these are possible and idiomatic. No native speaker of mainstream English is going to say, in answer to the question "How do you act when you're sad?", "I be awesome", but the guy in the sitcom might say "I'm sad but I act awesome" (whatever that may mean).

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Native speakers understand it because they don't stop every time that somebody says anything and go hmmm.... I'm not sure that's gramatically correct, and really in these instances it isn't them that's wrong, it's your rules which don't truly represent how communication in the English language can work

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1  
Nonsense, that's like saying "beer tastes nice, therefore nobody should learn how brewing works". Not everyone will care to examine how breaking the rules of grammar made that phrase more effective in both expressing the character's thoughts and revealing that character, but then not everyone would use a website about English language and usage. –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 at 12:39
1  
Also, you're wrong about why native speakers will understand it. It's not because they don't stop and consider its grammatical features, doing so wouldn't hinder them in comprehension, it's because it's close enough to grammatical to have the words relate to each other in a way that conveys a meaning, which is what grammar and syntax is for. That doesn't require thinking about the grammar, but considering why it works, does. –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 at 12:43

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