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We are taught that in "type 0" and "type 1" conditional sentences, the tense of the condition clause (aka the "if" clause) should always be the normal present tense, as in:

  • "Type 0" conditional: If you heat ice, it melts.

  • "Type 1" conditional: If he wins the lottery, he will spend it all on charity.

As with any other verb, when using the verb be in this position, its inflectional form must agree with its subject, as in:

  • If he is smart, he will pass the tests.

However, is in the aforementioned sentence implies if the person is smart in general, not in one specific situation.

Does this distinction matter in English? If the latter were to be the case, meaning in a specific instance not something stated as a general truth, would it then be possible to use the pattern "If I be ...." instead of "If I am ...."?

For example:

  • Son: Please buy me a bicycle, Dad.

  • Dad: I will, but only if you be a good boy. [rather than "if you are ...."]

Does anyone ever speak or write that way today? If so, in what spoken or written contexts? If not, then have they ever once customarily done so at any other time or place than here and now?

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2 Answers 2

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In British English, this is an archaic form. It uses the subjunctive. You will see the past subjunctive more often, e.g. "If I were a rich man..." https://genius.com/Jerry-bock-if-i-were-a-rich-man-lyrics

If you click on this link - https://bit.ly/2Nwo0Kt - you will see the live graph from which I took the image below. You will be able to click on links at the bottom of that page to see actual examples.

I don't know about American English. They use the subjunctive more than the British.

This Google nGram shows how the usage has declined

enter image description here

https://bit.ly/2Nwo0Kt

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  • Thank you very much. So would you say there is no difference in meaning between "if I be a good boy, will you take me with you?" and "if I am a good boy, will you take me with you?"?
    – Askeladd
    Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 10:26
  • Interesting analysis. I should say that the use of the base form 'be' in this way still occurs in the dialects of the South West of England (Dorset, Devon and Somerset etc). Certainly I myself encountered people speaking in that way. 'Smart' is a word which in the US replaces words like 'clever' or 'bright'. In the (sadly) moribund dialect you could say "If s/he be smart...". Indeed, I often wonder why English, as a minimal inflection language never took that route. Why inflect on the 3rd person singular and no other? And why do we still have '! am', 'you are', 's/he is'?
    – Tuffy
    Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 10:28
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    @Askeladd - I'm saying don't use "If I be a good boy, will you take me with you?" . Funnily enough, young children naturally use this form but their parents correct them! Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 10:46
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    Standard American English in no way differs from any other standard form of English in the morphological inflection of real conditionals in the condition clause. You must be thinking of how careful writers and speakers of North American English are more likely than uncareful writers and speakers of Insular Englishes to use the bare infinitive in mandative subjunctive clauses, or to use the special invariant were form in unreal condition clauses. But careful UK writers also do all this, especially in formal writing, while uncareful NA speakers often ignore it in casual contexts.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 15:45
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It is archaic. You will find it in books written up around 1900, but any use of it since then is either dialect, or deliberate archaism. enter image description here

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