In so-called memes and vines, I've seen sentences such as "People be like", "Boys be like", and so on. Every time, I wondered how be was in those particular sentences. Grammatically, how can be be in such sentences in that way?

My assumption, is it like subjunctive [should] be? Are is and are not used because using them would make the sentence determinative, whereas [should] be would make the sentence suggest possibility?


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    It would help to see some examples of what sort of thing follows these expressions, but my hunch is that it is the durative usage of AAVE (that's African American Vernacular English), distinguished in aspect from "Boys are like" as implying that boys are more permanently like whatever they are being said to be like. – Brian Donovan Jan 4 '15 at 14:53

As Brian Donovan noted in his comment, this use of be is a borrowing from African American Vernacular English, which has a strategy for differentiating durative and non-durative action. Durative action is marked with use of be and non-durative action is marked with a zero copula (a lack of a word in the position that might otherwise have a form of the verb to be). This short quotation from from English With An Accent explains:

Danny gone – he be working down to the factory is linguistically grammatical because it follows from the rule-governed structure of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), known also as Black English or Black English Vernacular (BEV). AAVE has complex morphosyntactic rules which contrast with those for other varieties of US English in many ways. So for example we see in this sentence a grammatical distinction in the conjugation of the verb "to be" in Danny gone and he be working. In the first case, AAVE allows deletion of the copula where other varieties of US English allow contraction ("Danny's gone"). In the case of he be working, AAVE provides a grammatical strategy to distinguish between durative and non-durative action: Danny working down to the factory means that he is there right now; Danny be working down to the factory means he goes there daily, that this is an on-going, repetitive action.

In the case of "people be like", we have an example of this distinctive form from AAVE being imported into a general English use, not necessarily restricted to speakers of AAVE. The meaning is that "people are like X" on a continual or habitual basis. Note, however, that this borrowing of AAVE has not yet spread to a general use any time a durative aspect might be employed, but its use is restricted to the context of particular Internet memes.

  • Fascinating. Suddenly it is clear to me why AAVE uses 'be' that way. It makes up for the lack of a durative variety of "to be". Makes perfect sense, and correlates to my understanding of Spanish "estar" vs. "ser". (I understand these are not exact analogs, but they serve an equally useful purpose in the respective dialect.) – Brian Hitchcock Jan 5 '15 at 7:41

"Be like" refers not only to action in AAVE, but to speech:

"When we went to the haunted house, Gerald be like, "You ain't getting me in there."

There is a comparable usage, mostly employed by younger speakers of all American ethnicities, which is "was like": (Probably from the dialect of AmE known as "Valley Speak")

"I was like, 'No way', and Clarissa was like, 'Way'."

("I said, 'That cannot possibly be true', and Clarissa replied, 'It is certainly true'.")

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