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In the phrase "the powers that be," as in the sentence:

It would never have occurred to the powers that be to run and supervise the National Lottery from anywhere but London.

(Oxford Dictionaries)

Why do we use "be", the infinitive form of the verb? Wouldn't "the powers that are" or "the powers that rule" make a lot more sense?

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    "That be" lends a sense of deity or royalty.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 3 '16 at 21:10
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To expand on Henry's answer: "The powers that be" is a set phrase quoted from Romans 13:1.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

In that context, it means "the temporal powers that indisputably do exist in the world," so we can rule out explanations that call on the subjunctive mood — here Paul isn't talking about "the powers that [may or may not] be", he's definitely talking about what we today would call "the powers that are."

So, why do archaic English sources use the form be where modern English would use are? Well, here are many partial answers all together in one place: Abbott's A Shakespearian Grammar quotes Richard III, act IV, scene 4:

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers? Where are thy children?

Abbott suggests that Shakespeare (and also the King James translators, who were working in English at the same time as Shakespeare) preferred be to are for the plural indicative form basically because it sounded better on a case-by-case basis; with maybe an additional connotation of uncertainty.

So, as a rule, it will be found that be is used with some notion of doubt, question, thought, &c.; for instance (a) in questions, and (b) after verbs of thinking. [...]

Be is much more common with the plural than the singular. [...]

Be is also used to refer to a number of persons, considered not individually, but as a kind or class. [...]

But it cannot be denied that the desire of euphony or variety seems sometimes the only reason for the use of be [as opposed to] are.

— Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, "Auxiliary Verbs", sections 298–300.

Let's face it: "the powers that be" sounds much cooler than "the powers that are", and the guys who wrote the King James Version knew that just as well as you or I. :)

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  • Thanks for the link, it raises an interesting point about "be" apparently being used more often with plural subjects that I had never noticed or heard of before.
    – herisson
    Jan 4 '16 at 8:22
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    This answer convinces me the most. Thank you for posting.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 4 '16 at 8:34
  • Is "be" grammatically correct, or is it like saying "Please give the papers to myself or John" as in it's not correct but sounds more formal/"cool"? Jan 4 '16 at 21:53
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    It's easy to see why a translator who could have chosen either "be" or "are" would have chosen "the powers that be are" rather than "the powers that are are". A more modern translation might be "the authorities that exist", per the NIV. Jan 5 '16 at 0:55
  • @ReinHenrichs -- in fact, most translators opt either to express it as a negative, "no authority exists without", or just reuse the original "powers that be" phrase from 1611.
    – Malvolio
    Jan 15 '16 at 19:56
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"The powers that be" is a set phrase drawn from early translations of the Bible into English (Tyndale, Geneva, KJV etc.), in particular Romans 13:1.

So its grammar (subjunctive) reflects the usage of the time, and even then might have been slightly archaic.

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    Interesting info, but your answer doesn't fully answer the question. Why the subjunctive here? Jan 3 '16 at 23:29
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    @OldBunny2800 It's technically incorrect by modern English grammar, but since it's an idiom now not even its grammar has to make sense, since modifying it, even to fix the grammar, would break the idiomaticness of it. Jan 3 '16 at 23:30
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    @OldBunny2800: Yes, the Epistle to the Romans is part of the New Testament. (Google would have told you that, too.) Jan 3 '16 at 23:59
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    @Araucaria: because that is how certain people wrote English in the 16th century, translating a present participle from Greek that might be read more literally as something like "authorities in being". I have no idea of the exact nuance: perhaps it suggests not just the Roman authorities at the moment Paul was writing in the 1st century but also those that later came into existence.
    – Henry
    Jan 4 '16 at 0:12
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    I think the nuance is that it is an implied hypothetical: "whatever powers there might happen to be at the time".
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 4 '16 at 1:02
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The phrase "the powers that be" doesn't employ the subjunctive mood. The phrase comes from the New Testament (Romans 13:1) and uses be instead of are as an archaic alternative to the present indicative tense, not as an expression of the present subjunctive mood.

This is explained explicitly in regard to this very phrase in the following Wikipedia article: English subjunctive

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  • I went ahead and included the link above. Sorry, it took me a couple minutes to find it. I had actually read several articles on the subjunctive, so I was having trouble figuring out which it was from my internet history. Jan 4 '16 at 12:39
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    However, in this Wiki article, it does note "citation needed"... So it still doesn't explain anything.
    – Tim Ward
    Jan 4 '16 at 14:50
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    Ah, we have a Wiki hater. Well, if not for the fact that the way "powers that be" is used in Romans 13:1 makes applying the subjunctive mood patently incorrect grammatically and but for the fact that Shakespeare and others have used this archaic alternative to the present indicative "are", then I might agree with you. However, grammar precludes all other explanations here that call "be" subjunctive or "lexical" in this context, while historical usage in countless literary classics absolutely supports the Wiki explanation. So it does explain it entirely, for its the only explanation that fits. Jan 4 '16 at 16:21
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    The Oxford English dictionary does provide a simlar example from the King James bible which it classifies as indicative, not subjunctive: "1611 Bible (King James) 2 Kings vi. 16 They that be with vs are moe then they that be with them."
    – herisson
    Sep 27 '17 at 15:30
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This blog says that it's the archaic English subjunctive form. Which I guess we could translate into modern English as "Whatever powers there may be".

However, I think the in sense that most people use it, they don't mean it in the subjective sense (i.e. an expression with doubt), but rather the indicative "the anonymous authorities that are presently in control".

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    If you read the actual quote from Romans, it doesn't make sense for it to be interpreted as subjunctive.
    – user16723
    Jan 6 '16 at 14:08
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+50

I think the be in this phrase might be the lexical be, which is mostly used in negative constructions now, but I understand was more widely used in centuries past.

In CGEL page 114 has info related to lexical be usage, including examples:

Lexical be

This is found with why + do and with if:

[63]

    i.a. Why don't you be more tolerant?

    i.b. Why doesn't he be more tolerant?

    ii.a. If you don't be quick you'll lose.

    ii.b. If he doesn't be quick he'll lose.

    iii.a. % If you be quick you'll win. -- (grammatical in some dialects only)
    iii.b. * If he be / bes quick he'll win. -- (ungrammatical)

Edit: Here is a construction with a positive lexical be. I think it's a modern novel that is set in earlier times:

"Be you friend or foe of the crown!" a voice called from a mounted shadow in the distance.

Edit I think I thought of another one, a commonly-used, if archaic, phrase: "Be that as it may [be]", meaning "as it is", or, "with things being what they are".

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    Oh, sort of like "do be cautious"? Jan 4 '16 at 3:53
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    What exactly does this so-called "lexical be" mean? How is it different from other "be"s? Jan 4 '16 at 5:03
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    As I understand it, lexical be contrasts with copula be; the former indicates an inherent, fundamental state that does not change, while the latter just links a subject and predicate together. (Cf. Spanish "ser" vs "estar").
    – chepner
    Jan 4 '16 at 5:12
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    This "lexical" verb form sounds like basically just the infinitive when used with the helping verb do, as in, "(Do you | Does he) know this man?" or "(Do you | Does he) be a friend of the Crown?". In all of these cases, it's (archaically or poetically, but not colloquially) permissible to rearrange the words, Romance-language-style: "(Know you | Knows he) this man?" and "(Be you | Be he) a friend of the Crown?". However, all this has nothing to do with the powers that be; that's just plain old indicative, as far as I know. Jan 4 '16 at 7:46
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    @curiousdannii it means a form of "be" that is not an auxiliary. Apart from whether this distinction is really useful being disputed by some (see pages.uoregon.edu/tpayne/UEG/…), it's irrelevant here as are can be a "lexical be" if anything can, so this utterly fails to answer the question.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 4 '16 at 10:25
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Phrases.org.uk:

This phrase derives from the Bible, Romans 13 - first appearing in print in English in Tyndale's Bible, 1526:

13:1 1 Let every soule submit him selfe vnto the auctorite of ye hyer powers. For there is no power but of God.

13:2 The powers that be are ordeyned of God. Whosoever therfore resysteth power resisteth the ordinaunce of God. And they that resist shall receave to the selfe damnacio.

Seems like he got that by translating Ancient Greek αἱ οὖσαι ἐξουσίαι ("the existing authorities"). So why didn't he just use "the powers are ordeyned of God"? That had to be more accurate isn't it?

Should someone say: ("say" has no "-s" because it's subjunctive</meta>)

There is no power. The powers are.."

, the common reply will be "I thought you just said that there are no powers". So the writer will opt for the lengthy version:

There is no power. The powers, should/if/suppose they exist, are..

, or he can use the compact version:

There is no power. The powers that may exist are..

, or the more compact version:

There is no power. The powers that may be are..

, or the much more compact version:

There is no power. The powers that be are..

So is this the reason why he translated it that way? Obviously, only he knows, but the evidence is that it is at least a 99% Yes.

(Tldr: btw the powers that be is a subset of the non-powers, and obviously !== the powers that are)


And yes, this is termed as the subjunctive use, not the indicative form. It's the exact same "be" in "I was going to request that they be".

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    But grammatically it's not the subjunctive, and it's not the same as in "I was going to request that they be." He's not saying that no powers exist; he's saying that no powers exist except through God, and that the powers that do exist ("the existing authorities," αἱ οὖσαι ἐξουσίαι) do exist through God ("are ordained of God"). Whoever resists these extant powers, resists against God. To say that these powers don't exist (or exist only hypothetically, or are somehow "non-powers") is to miss the meaning of the passage. Aug 22 '20 at 1:10
  • @Quuxplusone, To continue your comment: Why didn't he just use "the powers are ordeyned of God"?
    – Pacerier
    Aug 22 '20 at 22:24
  • Why didn't he just use "the powers are ordeyned of God"? Because that wouldn't be grammatical and/or sensical, any more than if I said "No cats exist without tails. The cats have tails." You generally can't just blurt out a definite article like that without some sort of restrictive clause. (Although sometimes it's implied, e.g. "No cats exist without tails. The cats are climbing the bookshelf again.") He certainly could have said "There is no power but of God; all powers are ordained of God." He just happened to go a little more flowery. Aug 22 '20 at 22:59
  • @Quuxplusone, (That's what I asked.. that there is certainly a simpler alternative to using "that be".) All else equal, translators default to accuracy. (not to mention that that specific paragraph is one of those seminal teachings with potential to cause major schisms and conflicts.) "flowery" is unlikely to be the answer.
    – Pacerier
    Aug 22 '20 at 23:52

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