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The motivating example is a quote from Jane Austen:

Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter.

Note that she starts with "Be not alarmed".

If this were, instead:

Don't be alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter.

would that have the same meaning? What is the difference between "Don't be alarmed" and "Be not alarmed"?

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  • Be not can also be contracted, although there is very little information on the Web. Is it, "She ben't worth it," or, "She Bain't worth it," or, "She b'aint worth it." Does anyone know definitively?
    – Marquee
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 22:53
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    Austentatiousness Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 1:07
  • @HippoSawrUs Was it ostentatious more than 200 years ago in the time of Jane Austen?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 1:21
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    The difference is 200 years; "be not" is antiquated today. Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 13:26

3 Answers 3

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What is the difference between "Don't be..." and "Be not..."?

There is no difference in meaning: both express a negative imperative.

"Be not..." is an old-fashioned form of the negative imperative (and present subjunctive): "Go not/move not/look not, etc." that, in current Modern English is seen as archaic, and/or excessively literary.

It was probably last used seriously in the early 19th century.

"Don't be..." is the current Modern English form of the negative imperative that uses the periphrastic "do" + infinitive: Don't go/move/look, etc."

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  • The most famous use of "be not" is probably John Donne in the 1630s with "Death be not proud" although it evidently lasted a lot longer. Searching in Google Books suggests that by the mid 19th century, use of "be not alarmed" was confined to religious writing (sermons, etc) which would often use archaic language. Even Austen's language had quite a few peculiarities so may not reflect wider usage.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 11:16
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The grammatical difference is that “be not” is using be as a “double identity”verb helping verb and linking verb, just the same as when we say They are not at home . Here” are” is used as a linking verb and a help one. “don’t be” is using be only as a linking verb. So, we need a helper do.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 22:53
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Grammatically, there is no difference. The "Be not" construction is simply more poetic. It hearkens back to lines like "Death be not proud" from John Donne in the 17th century, or Shakespeare's "Be not afraid of greatness."

In most contexts, "do" is strictly an auxiliary verb. It's used colloquially in sentences like "don't be alarmed", but doesn't actually carry any meaning. Put another way, it doesn't add any content to the sentence. Removing unnecessary words like this holds appeal for poets and authors concerned more with the elegance of their language than verisimilitude.

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  • The grammatical difference lies in one using something called do support. Do support is now mandatory for that use. But in Austen's day, it may still have been optional, and during the time it was optional, the two seem to have conveyed different aspects. So they may not have been the same to Jane Austen.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 0:54
  • Coincidentally, Pride and Prejudice features two relevant letters, one including the phrase "be not alarmed" and the other "do not be alarmed". The "be not alarmed" letter is written in a much more elaborate and formal style than the brief, familiar "do not be alarmed" letter, which would suggest the difference is one of style or register (although coming from different letter-writers it could reflect another difference). gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 13:52

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