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I mean that "I would do something, if it only were me. But it was not me, so I've done nothing".

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Imagine a situation. Your friend tells you: "Hi! Yesterday I saw you in a crowd. You saw me too but suddenly ran away." And you reply to him: "I would surely greet you, be it me." – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:10
Probably, I have constructed my phrase by analogy with "be it so" and "be it a cat or a dog". – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:16
up vote 8 down vote accepted

No. It sounds old-fashioned, but searching through Google books for such phrases used in the 1800s, I did not find a single instance of anybody using "be it me" or "be it I" in this way. What you're looking for is "were it me" or "were it I"; this usage requires the past subjunctive and not the present subjunctive. Here are some examples:

Why, were it me, I'd take it just to spite him.

Were it me, I'd show him the difference.

Were it me, I do believe I'd be half inclined to stay, and be discovered.

"Were it I," said the second man, with a shrug of his shoulders, "I'd get it to the Admiral,"

I can make nothing of it, Roland, but were it I, I should ask my mother exactly what it means.

Were it I that sold that poor perished victim his drams, I should seem to hear his voice mingling its wailings with the storms of every bleak wintry night.

Some grammarian prescriptivists would say that it should be "were it I", but both forms seem to have been used. This is still an old-fashioned way of saying this, and I recommend saying "if it were I" or (maybe less grammatical, but more common) "if it was me" unless you want to sound like you're speaking archaic English.

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Thank you, Peter. It was very informative. – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:50
‘Traditional grammar calls our irrealis a “past subjunctive”, contrasting with “present subjunctive’ ‘be’. But there are no grounds for analysing this “were” as a past tense counterpart of the “be” that we find in constructions like “It’s vital that he be kind to her.” (Huddleston and Pullum, authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’. – Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 13:00
They're right: "It had been vital that he be kind to her," not "that he were ..." So what do they recommend calling these verb forms? The irrealis and ... ? – Peter Shor Nov 4 '11 at 13:27
In the sentence 'It’s vital that he be kind to her', they call 'be' 'subjunctive'. They continue 'We don't use "subjunctive" as a term for an inflectional category, but for a syntactic construction employing the plain form of the verb.' – Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 13:38

You could say: "I would do something, were it I"; you might even get away with the colloquial but incorrect "were it me".

But this, though correct, sounds like quite antiquated English, especially in speech.

Slightly more natural would be to say "...something, if it were I", but again, the incorrect but colloquial "if it were me" would sound even more natural.

Trouble is, even to use that last construction indicates knowledge of the subjunctive; everyone else you speak to will probably try and correct you to say "was", and if you contradict them you'll probably be marked for life as a pedant, and not welcome in anti-intellectual society.

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In such cases, you use the past subjunctive, which is used for imaginary or hypothetical conditions. The present subjunctive is used to express commands or requests.

If I were rich I would live on Long Island.

This sentence express a hypothetical condition, as I am not rich.

I demand she be on time.

This sentence express an order. The verbs that express an order, and that generally use the subjunctive are ask, demand, insist, recommend, request, and require.

To notice that the past subjunctive is not called so because it is used for an event happened in the past, nor is the present subjunctive called so because it is used for an event that happens in the present.

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So for conditionals like "If it is cold, I will wear a coat", why do we use is, the indicative, and not be, the subjunctive? Its being cold is still a hypothetical situation, right? – Jez Nov 4 '11 at 11:33
@Jez: not all of us do (at least in writing). – TimLymington Nov 4 '11 at 11:39
I don’t find it helpful to think of the English subjunctive in terms of past and present. The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ go so far as to deny that this use of ‘were’ is subjunctive at all. – Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 11:41
Probably, I have constructed my phrase by analogy with "be it so" and "be it a cat or a dog". May it be an archaic form? – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 11:58

It would have to be "be it I". But the whole phrase sounds somewhat peculiar: it might be better to rephrase, perhaps as "if I were in that situation".

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And it would have to be future. The only possible use I can think of is "They say some lucky person will win £20 million on the lottery tomorrow. Be it I, I will leave my job." On the whole, not a useful construction. – TimLymington Nov 4 '11 at 12:30
Thank you, Tim! May it be rephrased? For example, "I will leave my job, be it I who will win £20 million on the lottery tomorrow". – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:41
This usage requires the past subjunctive, not the present subjunctive (despite the fact that the action is taking place in the present). It should be "were it I". – Peter Shor Nov 4 '11 at 12:46
@PeterShor: "Were it I who won", but "be it I who wins" [future, as I said]. And avrelian: I was emphasising how useless the phrase is. No matter how you could use it, please don't. – TimLymington Nov 4 '11 at 14:11
Thank you, Tim. – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 16:56

I find it a strange sentence altogether. Does it mean I would do something if it concerned only me, but it concerns other people as well, so I haven’t? If so, you could say I would do something, if it were only me. But it isn’t, so I've done nothing.

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Sorry for my vague explanation. Imagine a situation. Your friend tells you: "Hi! Yesterday I saw you in a crowd. You saw me too but suddenly ran away." And you reply to him: "I would surely greet you, be it me." – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:05
Then that is an impossible English sentence as far as I can see, at least in British Standard English. The normal response would be 'If it had been me, I would certainly have responded, I can assure you.' – Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 12:17
And what about "be/were it I" (proposed by @TimLymington and @njd)? – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:26
I can't imagine anyone saying either. – Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 12:29
Thank you, Barrie. – avrelian Nov 4 '11 at 12:36

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