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Which of the following is grammatical?

  • He had lollies be they red or blue?
  • He had lollies be them red or blue?

It seems as if it could be them as an object of be.

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2  
This seems such an unlikely thing for anyone to say that I don't think any answer given here would mean very much. –  Barrie England Nov 6 '12 at 10:38
    
Thanks. But I'm interested in which is grammatically correct. –  Free Nov 6 '12 at 10:46
    
This sentence would not be interpreted as a question, but rather a literary statement that approximated "He had all lollies regardless of whether they were red or blue." –  KitFox Nov 6 '12 at 14:37
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Do you perhaps mean "He had lollies. Were they red or blue?" (or "He has lollies. Are they red or blue?") –  StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 17:40
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Unfortunately, this has been closed. So I'll have to answer here. "They" is the subject of "be" here, so "He had lollies, be they red or blue" is perfectly grammatical, albeit a rather unusual thing to say. I cannot think of a context in which "He had lollies, be them red or blue" would be grammatical. –  user16269 Nov 7 '12 at 7:50
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closed as not a real question by MετάEd, JSBձոգչ, Zairja, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Mahnax Nov 7 '12 at 6:46

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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Neither of your two questions makes sense as written, and I do not know what the intent is. For one thing, I don’t understand why they are questions; they do not look like such to me.

For another, the formulaic “be they X or Y ”, using present subjunctive and inversion as it does, is of a somewhat elevated register which may not be appropriate for all circumstances. It has a slightly musty aroma of littérature to it, as of a sweetness possibly gone slightly off. The use of the somewhat colloquial lollies seems to fight against that register. It is an odd mix.

Here are some alternate wording you may wish to consider, depending on your actual intent.

  • He had red and blue lollies.
  • He had lollies, both red ones and blue ones.
  • He had lollies that were swirls of red and blue.
  • He had lollies of swirling red and blue.
  • Did he have either red or blue lollies?
  • Did he have any red or blue lollies?
  • Did he have any lollies, either red or blue?
  • Did he have any lollies, whether red or blue?
  • Whether red or blue, he had plenty of lollies.
  • Both red and blue lollies he had laid in store.
  • Whether blue or red or any other flavor, he had lollipops galore.
  • Lollipops of every sort had he aplenty, be they cherry or berry, or orange or lemon, or chocolate or peppermint. Why, even the fabled Everlasting Gobsmacker was available — for weekly rental, that is, albeit at a rate well within reach of a child’s monthly allowance. As so often happens with such treasures, it was the late fees that were the Smackers’ sticking point, for what child born could ever part with one of Mr Wonka’s Everlasting Gobsmackers once it had danced upon his tongue its song of A Thousand Flavours and a Flavour? Not one, I tell you, and so the Candyman’s siren song lured ever and anon a new generation to his musical cart: even the most loving of parents refused to pass their own Smackers on to their children, nor let lapse the lease.

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Disjunctive Concession, Inversion, and the Subjunctive

As for the use of the present subjunctive in be they red or blue, that is called disjunctive concession, and it is in Contemporary English considered a literary style seldom heard elsewhere. In his monumental work, An Historical Syntax of the English Language, Visser has this to say about it:

The modally marked form is used in Old, Middle, and Modern English in clauses of disjunctive concession or alternative hypothesis. In Present Day English mainly literary.

I strongly advise you not to attempt to affect a literary register, let alone one that risks being perceived as archaic or poetic when that is not the intent, because I do not believe you yet have sufficient command of English to credibly pull it off.

Here, however, are some examples of authors who did do so. You might compare your writing with theirs and decide whether you write like them. Or should.

1605 Shakespeare, King Lear

Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite;

c1795 Robert Burns, Extemporary to Mr Syme

No more of your guests, be they titled or not.

1954 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

‘As for me,’ said Imrahil, ‘the Lord Aragorn I hold to be my liege-lord, whether he claim it or no.’

a1974 ibid, The Silmarillion:

For Turgon took great liking for the sons of Galdor, and spoke much with them; and he wished indeed to keep them in Gondolin out of love, and not only for his law that no stranger, be he Elf or Man, who found the way to the secret kingdom and looked upon the city should ever depart again, until the King should open the leaguer, and the hidden people should come forth.

1981 Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator

“Welcome visitors and fellow villagers! In the time it takes to draw breath thrice, you will see us smash this barrier and drag out the bandit Barnoch. Whether he be dead, or, as we have good reason to believe — for he hasn’t been in there that long — alive.

1998 George Martin, A Clash of Kings

“When we still kept the Old Way, lived by the axe instead of the pick, taking what we would, be it wealth, women, or glory.

So yes, the form undeniably exists, although used differently than you attempted. But no, I don’t think it works in what you are trying to write, especially where you attempted to use it.

Finally, you will notice how even in my own examples, I held off from using that form until the final, somewhat florid example. Are you writing like that?

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+1 for lollies. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 6 '12 at 14:32
    
Do you reckon it doesn't sound good because there's inversion at the end of the sentence and not at the start? I noticed that your last sentence had two inversions. Could 'he had lollies, red and blue' make sense or could that be technically ambiguous because the 'he' might be interpreted as red and blue? What word for lollies is not colloquial? Thanks. –  Free Nov 6 '12 at 14:44
    
@Free Answer updated above. But specifically: my last example sentence has at most one inversion not two; lollipop would be less colloquial than lollies; the postfix red and blue to lollies is an unusual ordering, and should like an exotic spice be used sparingly if at all; and no, he could certainly never be interpreted as a color! –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 16:06
    
OP should get extra Rep for providing you an excuse to compose this. Not to niggle (or Niggle), but there's no subjunctive be in the LotR quote. –  StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 17:04
    
@StoneyB Well true, but it is clearly disjunctive concession with characteristic subjunctive. I wanted to show that these coupled phenomena can, did, and even do occur with verbs other than be. Those are danged tough to grep for, by the way. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 17:35
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The verb be does not take an object. It has a subject and a complement, not an object.

Consequently *be them cannot be correct.

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Thanks. Maybe I was thinking the 'be' was changing the subject (the lollies) and so the pronoun would be objective. –  Free Nov 6 '12 at 10:59
    
Be doesn't change anything. That's why it doesn't take an object. At most, it describes the subject by indicating equivalence to the complement. –  Andrew Leach Nov 6 '12 at 11:01
    
Right. I see. Thanks for explaining that. –  Free Nov 6 '12 at 11:19
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