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Comments on this question considered whether the verb be could be modified by an adverb. This seems a question worth pursuing in its own right, so may I ask what completely modifies in the following sentence, if it doesn't modify be?

Whatever you choose to be, be completely.

Edit: And how about these?

He is almost a doctor.

Finally he is a doctor.

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    Without any formal training besides highschool English class, I am hesitant to put this as an answer, but as a comment I'll say that any attempt to modify a state of "be" would probably end up modifying the subject / object instead, but I could be WAY wrong. – TecBrat Sep 16 '13 at 14:19
  • Intriguing. I suspect this comment is more relevant. Your second be is not infinitive; it's imperative (which happens to look the same). – Andrew Leach Sep 16 '13 at 14:20
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    I hesitate to say this but I feel that the sentence is not grammatical. I would ask "be what?" and would write Whatever you choose to be, be it completely instead. – terdon Sep 16 '13 at 14:22
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    The notion of what "modify" means is not limited to individual words. Any adverb, for instance, can modify a (lexical) verb, a verb phrase, or a clause. Since in many ways the verb is the head of every clause, and certainly is the head of every verb phrase, one can get away with saying that adverbs modify verbs most of the time. But in fact the scope of an adverb -- what it "modifies" -- is a syntactic constituent, not a particular word. Most adverbs are predicates logically, with the constituent they "modify" as arguments. – John Lawler Sep 16 '13 at 16:49
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    In the case of the original sentence, both uses of 'be' are auxiliaries for an indefinite predicate noun -- i.e, be SOMETHING, probably in some metaphorical sense of purposeful career- or character-building. What completely modifies is the verb phrase be (SOMETHING), where the parenthesized material is deleted by conjunction reduction, leaving be behind as a tag pro-verb, like the do action pro-verb in Do what I say, not what I do. – John Lawler Sep 16 '13 at 17:20
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To be certainly can, because it has its existential meaning, as well as its copulative meaning.

To painfully be, not to painfully be.

I find it interesting though that while this suggests more motive for the dilemma than the original it weakens it not just in ruining the scansion (it's not like I thought I could improve on Shakespeare) but because the existential meaning is so much rarer than the copulative that the misinterpretation "to be or not to be what?" is easier to make here. (We could explore the effect of the decision as to whether or not to split the infinitive on various phrases that modify the existential to be).

Still, used existentially, be can clearly be modified, since it is a normal enough verb in function.

For a stab at modifying to be in it's copulative sense I would try:

I still am.

We gladly are.

In leaving out the predicate (having it deduced from a context that I don't give), I think it shows that what is modified is the link between the subject (I) and that missing predicate; that is to say, what is being modified is precisely what the copula represents.

This doesn't give a complete answer:

  1. We could read gladly above as modifying the verb are, giving us an answer of "yes".
  2. We could read gladly as modifying the verb phrase "are [object or adjective deduced from context]", giving us an answer of "no".
  3. We could read it as the second reading above, but conclude that that entire phrase is contained in the single verb, giving us an answer of "yes, sort of".

In the end, I'm left to conclude that whether we consider gladly as modifying are above comes down to why we are asking the question, we have different models for how language generally, and English specifically, works to solve different questions about it. It suits my needs (to have my hastily written pieces reasonably coherent and my more carefully drafted pieces coherent and convincing or evocative) to just answer "yes", but I won't claim to know how well this would fit with various models of grammar used by linguists.

Still, you can definitely modify the existential sense.

  • The distinction between copulative be and existential be is a valid one, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the existential one can be modified. I think the case of copulative be remains open, but I’m accepting this as an answer, because it seems to cover all the possibilities. – Barrie England Sep 17 '13 at 14:54
  • Still @BarrieEngland it would be nice if ELU had an answer, readable by the layperson, that demonstrates whether copulative to be can be modified by an adverb, or does it rather in such a proposed case necessarily modify the clause. – Alan Carmack Sep 18 '16 at 14:18
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Allow me to answer your question with a question.

How could it not be? ;)

(Not here is modifying "be", in case it wasn't obvious)

Or for a different example, you can "be very", as in "Be very very quiet".

"Be" is a verb, like any other verb, and I see no reason why it could not be modified.

Granted, in your case, it is a rather awkward wording, because "completely" is an adverb that doesn't quite fit with "be". "Be it completely" seems to work much better, but I suspect that is because it adds a subject to the phrase.

As for your second two examples, there are a few options you have that avoid this conflict altogether.

"He is becoming a doctor". "Finally he became a doctor".

  • Thank you, but the negative makes no difference to the point at issue, and 'very very modifies 'quiet', not 'be'. Those are certainly alternatives, but I'm looking for an explanation rather than alternatives. – Barrie England Sep 16 '13 at 19:05
  • Really? I thought that the "very" was modifying "be". But perhaps I am mistaken. I was also certain that "not" was modifying "be" as well. – Zibbobz Sep 16 '13 at 19:31
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    “Very very quiet is what he was”—clearer there that ‘very very’ modifies ‘quiet’, not the copula. ‘Not’ does modify ‘be’, but negations are a special class of adverbs with special rules; that a negative can modify a verb does not imply that any adverb can. And I think you meant “I suspect that is because it adds an object to the phrase”, since “Be completely” already has a subject. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 16 '13 at 21:17
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Yes, it is sometimes correct to modify "be" with an adverb.

Originally I wrote this whole post saying it is almost always more typical/preferred to modify the subject/object instead of the verb, as TecBrat mentioned in his/her comment. However, here is an example where it is most definitely correct to modify be, and not the subject/object:

Punishment should never be carried out in anger.

This completely modifies "be".

One should always be mindful to watch their step.

Seems equally correct as

One should be mindful to always watch their step.

  • Actually, the question which still needs an unambiguous answer here on ELU, is whether copulative to be may be modified by an adverb. And based on posts by @BillJ at the offsite Linking verbs and Adverbs my working answer to that is no. – Alan Carmack Nov 11 '16 at 14:24
  • Apologies, Alan, I completely edited my post after making it. – ancientcampus Nov 11 '16 at 14:28

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