I was just looking at the verb to be (here) and I saw the subjunctive form "I be". Other than pirates saying "I be looking for treasure" I couldn't think of a single usage of "I be". Not knowing what subjunctive meant I went and looked it up but now I'm left thinking that "I be" could never be used in a grammatically correct way.

If I understand correctly the subjunctive form is for an irrealis mood which implies that the speaker doesn't know if the action or situation has happened as they are speaking. Surely that makes any sentence starting "I be" a logical contradiction - the speaker must know whether the action has started as they are doing it? Perhaps that is the humour behind the sentence and I'm just the last one in the room to get in!


4 Answers 4


I think the point is that if you did need the subjunctive mood, "I be" would be what to use. In an archaic sentence like this one following, there are two uses of the subjunctive:

If someone slight me, I shall run him through, whoever he be.

It's possible to contrive a similar sentence for I:

He can see through any disguise. He will always find me, whoever I be.

This is irrealis, but not through uncertainty about whether it is happening or not — it's uncertainty about the exact circumstances of a situation. I know I shall be disguised, and I know I shall be discovered; any uncertainty is about who I am disguised as.

  • Fascinating, thank you. Am I right in thinking that if the sentence had ended "whoever I am" it would indicate that you knew who you would be disguised as?
    – wobblycogs
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:04
  • 1
    Perhaps; but the whoever indicates at least some doubt. The use of infinitive forms in this sort of sentence is archaic, if not obsolete. "Whoever I am" is now perfectly normal.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:06
  • @AndrewLeach Whoever I am doesn't ring the same thing to me as with be.
    – Kris
    Nov 21, 2014 at 12:41

This is an example of a subjunctive. The subjunctive form of the verb is frequently used in mandative clauses (certain clauses which contain the content of an order, desire, suggestion). The subjuntive uses the plain form of the verb. The same form as the bare infinitive. The Original Poster's example I be would be grammatical in the following sentences:

  • He demanded I be taken out and flogged.
  • He suggested I be there before the proceedings commenced.
  • It is essential that I be kept informed of any new developments.

The subjunctive is used more frequently in American English than in British, although it is perfectly normal in both.


...when I be plain Jack...

Quotation from Thomas Hardy TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES representing a West Country dialect (Dorset, UK)

"Then what might your meaning be in calling me 'Sir John' these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler?"


You don't need the subjunctive to use the collocation 'I be' grammatically.


Will I be rich?

Shall I be mother?

Should I be in this class?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.