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I’ve heard, on rare occasion, a subtle differentiation between be as a state (to passively embody) and be as an action (to actively embody). The latter form often occurs in parallel with do to add emphasis to the active nature of the verb.

  • What do you do with all your money?

    • Be rich.

    • I be rich.

    • *I am rich.

  • What does the Pope do?

    • Be Catholic.

    • He bes Catholic.

    • *He is Catholic.

  • Does he always be idiotic like that?

    • Yes, he always does (be).

    • No, he doesn’t always (be).

    • *No, he isn’t always (idiotic like that).

Rhetorical questions demonstrate a similar, possibly related device:

  • Why don’t you be sure first?

    • If I take the time to be sure, I’ll be too late.

It is not at all related to African-American Vernacular English and its use of be as a tense marker. It’s also not necessarily indicative of a habitual action (e.g., (will) be).

Is this standard? Moreover, is it predictable? Could it be a vestige of a distinction that used to be marked in English but has since been largely lost, or is it a wholly new development?

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This sounds like a regional use. Do you know if it is? If so, which region? –  KitFox Jun 7 '11 at 19:38
    
@Kit: I think it might be Northeastern or just non-Southeastern United States. It is uncommon enough that it's hard for me to judge, but common enough that it's interesting. –  Jon Purdy Jun 7 '11 at 19:47
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Your last example sounds like an inner-city African-American usage. I believe what's happening there is the modal verb is being dropped ("Sometimes I [will] be ..."). The dialect normally involves the zero copula (cf. Bob Marley's "We Jammin'") where the copula is omitted entirely, but it's put in when a modal is involved. At least that's what I can gather. –  Robusto Jun 7 '11 at 19:53
    
@Robusto: Yeah, that's what I was referring to, but I cited it as an unrelated use to prevent extra answers in that vein. –  Jon Purdy Jun 7 '11 at 20:08
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+1. I have always been curious about this case. "What does he DO with all his money?" "He BEs rich". To respond with "He is rich" doesn't seem to answer the question properly because we don't hear "is" as an answer to "do". Normally I would chock it up to nuances of the language, but then why am I always tempted to use this if it doesn't exist? –  tenfour Jun 7 '11 at 23:09
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4 Answers 4

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If you look at most of your examples you will find that they describe multiple instances of a state of affairs. This is signalled by adverbials like sometimes, often, etc., which suggests that this use of be is to indicate a habitual meaning of some kind.

However, regarding this example:

  • He bes rich.

This sounds different; rather than indicating a habitual meaning, it seems to indicate an activity of living rich(ly), something like that. The presence of the inflection -s perhaps indicates this "activity-like state" meaning. By the way, the fact that the inflected form is regular (i.e., bes instead of is) suggests that the form is an innovation, since the general trend is for irregular forms to disappear over time, not appear. Also, my guess would be that Why don't you be sure? might be (very) loosely related.

I find this example quite interesting:

  • Sometimes, he does be idiotic like that.

I would be willing to bet that whoever it was that said the example about would also say / find acceptable the one below, in which the negation clitic / suffic -n't appears on the dummy do verb:

  • Sometimes, he don't be idiotic like that.

That person would probably find the question forms below quite natural, too:

  • Do he sometimes be idiotic like that?

  • What do he sometimes be like?

If indeed the dummy do is required, it would suggest that be plus adjective in these examples is being used as a single unit, a kind of adjectival-verb.

In any case, more examples would certainly help unravel the mystery.

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I'm only one data point, but this is not true for me. "Sometimes, he does be idiotic like that" sounds perfectly acceptable and natural to me, and I say things like that. But the other three sentences you posted all sound definitively wrong to my ear, not even borderline. While I would say "Sometimes, he does be idiotic like that", I would negate it as "Sometimes, he doesn't be idiotic like that". And I would ask, "Does he sometimes be idioti like that" and "What does he sometimes be like?". –  Ben Lee Nov 30 '12 at 20:59
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I agree with the first part of your answer though. "He bes rich" also sounds fine to my ear, and it means "He does what those who are rich typically do". In general, "He bes ADJ" means "He does what those who are ADJ typically do". –  Ben Lee Nov 30 '12 at 21:09
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I'm fairly sure it's not a vestige of any past distinction, and it's certainly not standard in Britain. I'm not convinced personally that your distinction actually exists, but as with any such usage, if enough people believe in it (and talk about it), it will become a new part of the language.

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I'm speculating here, but: I usually hear this as "Sometimes I'll actually be boyish and play sports." Your case sounds like it might be a casual elision of the verb "will". This use of will here is defined in the NOAD:

5 expressing habitual behavior : she will dance for hours.

  • (pronounced stressing “will”) indicating annoyance about the habitual behavior described : he will keep intruding.

If this is the case, your second example would be unrelated, the does being merely to add emphasis.

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Interesting way of looking at it, but my example doesn't show that the use isn't necessarily habitual. Rather, it clearly expresses active adoption of a state: I'm not typically, but yesterday I did be. A similar device is used in rhetorical questions: Why don't you be sure first? –  Jon Purdy Jun 7 '11 at 19:59
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I see what you're getting at now, the rhetorical question example is clearer to me. More like a use of be with the additional implication of having become, or something along those lines. I don't know the answer. –  Elephans Jun 7 '11 at 20:58
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That is actually one of my favorite parts of the African American dialect (AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English), which sadly isn't available in Standard American English (SAE).

Here's what Wikipedia says about it:

Although AAVE doesn't necessarily feature the preterite marker of other English varieties (that is, the -ed of worked), it does feature an optional tense system with four past and two future tenses or (because they indicate tense in degrees) phases.[37]

Phases/Tenses of AAVE[38]

Phase: Example

Past Pre-recent: I been flown it

Recent: I done fly it

Pre-present: I did fly it

Past Inceptive: I do fly it

Present: I be flying it

Future: Immediate I'm a-fly it

Post-immediate: I'm a-gonna fly it

Indefinite future: I gonna fly it

...

This latter example highlights one of the most distinguishing features of AAVE, which is the use of be to indicate that performance of the verb is of a habitual nature. In SAE, this can only be expressed unambiguously by using adverbs such as usually

Basically this construction implies a continuous or persistent quality that a simple "is" would not imply.

So, no it isn't exactly "standard" (as in Standard American English). Most folks who aren't familiar with that dialect will look at you like you have two heads if you use it. Sad, really. Its a damn handy verb form.

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Well, this is an interesting answer, but it doesn't answer my actual question, which isn't at all about my last (I suppose misleading) example. –  Jon Purdy Jun 8 '11 at 22:40
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