I have the following question. There is an idiom 'if need be'. The meaning is clear, but I can't comprehend it from a grammatical point of view. How should I parse it? 'if [smth] needs to be'? Why not 'needs' then? The question probably is silly...

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    I think be is a subjunctive, and need is a noun: "if there be a need". – Peter Shor Sep 25 '13 at 10:12
  • Or: "If need be, " then the "something". – nxx Sep 25 '13 at 11:16
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    In the UK both 'If needs be', and 'If need be' are used idiomatically, sometimes at the start of sentences, often to outline a possible solution which can be applied if circumstances prove adverse. e.g. Should the promise of accommodation not materialise, I can, if needs be, find an apartment to rent. – user52780 Sep 25 '13 at 22:30

This idiom is a remnant from a time when ‘if’ constructions more rigorously required the subjunctive mood in the following verb.

To this day, the past subjunctive is used after ‘if’ when it has an irreal meaning (“if it were … but it's not”). It used to be that this was true also of the present tense, and as such, you would say, “if it be true” rather than “if it is true”.

In this idiom, ‘need(s)’ would in contemporary English most likely have a definite article attached to it: “if the need is [= exists]”; but the form without the article is, for whatever reason, the one that survived in the idiom.

So “if need(s) be” is no more than an older, fossilised form of “if the need is/exists” or “if the needs are/exist”, which is quite understandable even in contemporary English.

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  • Good explanation. But "This idiom is a remnant from a time when ‘if’ was more adamant in requiring the subjunctive mood in the following verb" sounds in need of modernising too. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 10 '14 at 20:36
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't follow—how do you mean? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '14 at 20:40
  • Style, not content. The personification of 'if' ('adamant' Google: 1. refusing to be persuaded or to change one's mind) sounds very 1950s. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 10 '14 at 20:51
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    @EdwinAshworth All part of my personal charm, as my dad always says. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '14 at 20:55

Paraphrase : "If the need were to occur" : substantive + subjunctive.

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The following examples might also help:

Call me if John needs to be collected from school OR 'if the children need to be'..

If need be I can collect them. (If the need arises I can collect them).
'If need be' and 'if needs be' are both used with the same meaning in UK English.

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