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Last night an actor in a YouTube advert told me "I always be myself."

I don't remember the point of the ad to find it and share it here. I did search Google for "i always be myself" and found some examples:

A transcript of an interview with actor Harish Kalyan:

When I came to the industry 10 years, everyone used to say I am a fun loving person. I always be myself and lead my life. People may think I have got everything I wanted, but I have my own issues.

A comment on the blog of professional non-conformist Chris Guillebeau:

I feel really happy to know that there are more people think the same way I do . I always be myself and I am used to hear phrases like ” you’re strange…” ” how do you do that…” or ” .. you are so free!! I can’t be like you”… but you know what, they don’t know that it is easier this way, to act like yourself ..

A comment on a Reddit thread about social skills:

It's not applicable to every environment. I always be myself everytime, but people at my work just don't like it. Even when I don't say anything they're not having it.

I say it myself. In the right context I would also say "You always be yourself" and "He always bes himself".

But why does it sound right? Why didn't we use "am", "are", or "is" in the above examples?

I have a feeling it's related to how "to be" works a second job as the auxiliary verb that converts the present simple tense (for habitual actions) to the present continuous tense (for momentary actions). We want to express the habit of being oneself.

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  • "He always bes himself" would be ungrammatical. On your second point about the habitual, do you feel that way when always is missing from the statement?
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 29 at 15:16
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    @TimR Good question about "always". It sounds right to me with a similar adverb such as "usually". I don't think I'd say it without any adverb. Commented Feb 29 at 15:36
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    At cocktails parties I just be myself vs (?) At cocktails parties I just am myself. I think your question is a good one, but an answer is going to take some research. Meanwhile, see reddit.com/r/grammar/comments/emey0j/… Commented Mar 2 at 3:49
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    @TinfoilHat Wow, thank you. A comment points to Wiktionary's description of a "dynamic / lexical be". Google lexical be to uncover a rabbit hole of academic research. I'll share my own answer one day if someone more linguistically prepared doesn't do it first. Commented Mar 3 at 11:20
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    Thomas E Payne answers the question in his paper "The two be's of English". In his terms the YouTube actor here uses not the usual "stative be" but the "active be". See section 3.2 for the details. I'll quote from it to write a full answer when I have time. Commented Mar 3 at 18:04

2 Answers 2

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Collins lists this usage of the overworked word (/words?) be:

be [9] [link verb] [verb + pronounᵣₑբₗₑₓᵢᵥₑ]:

To be yourself means to behave in the way that is right and natural for you and your personality.

  • She'd learnt to be herself and to stand up for her convictions.

Note that the example uses a catenation, learnt to be herself, and that the whole to-participial string to be yourself is defined. This contrasts with say Collins' listing of be good for.

Although the imperative 'Be yourself!' is certainly idiomatic, declarative examples without catenation / modal support are much rarer.

  • He always tries to be himself.
  • You should always be yourself.
  • One must always be oneself.
  • ?He is always himself.

(other than negated clauses of the form

  • He is not himself today.)

and the example given sounds awful to my ears in a natural register ... piratical or AAVE, maybe

  • */?I always be myself.

To be fair, there are quite a few examples of 'I always be myself' to be found in a Google search: it's becoming a maxim, found for instance on Instagram. Many of the early examples shown in the search do however seem to be in pidgin English or at least have strained grammar.

In a formal register, 'I will always be myself' is fine, if slightly different in meaning.

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  • 1
    I wonder if some of it is people who don't realise "be yourself" is related to the irregular verb "be", and try and conjugate it as a normal verb where the first person is the same as the base form. (Maybe they think it's "B yourself" where B is short for something or other.) Although some might be AAVE or other dialects with "I be", it doesn't all seem to be.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 29 at 15:15
  • ᵣₑբₗₑₓᵢᵥₑ] What on earth...!
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 1 at 8:02
  • ... Blame the subscript-renderer. Commented Mar 1 at 16:24
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    From Ian Hollenbaugh's paper on the Habitual Be "Overall, the distributional differences between the habitual be found in AAE [(African American English)] and that found in NSAE [(Non-Standard American English)] make it unlikely that the NSAE usage is a result of direct borrowing from AAE (cf. Payne 2010:19, 2013:31)." Commented Mar 19 at 0:10
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"I always be myself" sounds right because the the YouTube actor is expressing not a state but a habit.

In "Habitual be in American English" Ian Hollenbaugh describes the "stative be" and "habitual be":

Stative predicates such as the one in the sentence I am lazy (i.e., I am characterized as a lazy person) can be made eventive by the addition of being, thus I am being lazy (i.e., I am acting lazy but may or may not be characterized as a lazy person).

The habitual equivalent of such sentences may be expressed by what appears to be an uninflected be, thus I be lazy (from time to time) (i.e., I act lazy on an indefinite number of occasions but may or may not be characterized as a lazy person). Remarkably, this be does not surface as am/are/is, despite showing person and number agreement, as is clear in the third-person singular: Ian be’s lazy (sometimes).

Why didn't the actor say "I always am myself"?

Hollenbaugh shares an example from Thomas E. Payne's The Two be's of English to explain that it wouldn't capture the sense of the actor behaving in some volitional way.

Payne (2013:31–2) provides the minimal pair in (1). Both of these sentences have essentially the same interpretation and may be produced on different occasions by the same speaker. Often, in fact, a speaker will produce—or half produce—a sentence like (1a), then quickly “correct” themself to a sentence of the type (1b), which is considered standard. However, as Payne (2013:32) notes, “[(1b)] doesn’t capture the sense of volitionality and activity that is nicely expressed in [(1a)]”—an intuition which I share, so much so that I find (1b) to be just barely grammatical.

  • 1a. If she just be’s herself, she’ll do fine in the debate.
  • 1b. If she just is herself, she’ll do fine in the debate

Although habitual be works without an adverb such as always or usually, Hollenbaugh shows that it needs to be restricted in time or to an event either explicitly or implicitly.

Habitual be’s requires a restrictive temporal clause or some equivalent expression of an event on which the main predicate is contingent, whether expressed overtly or supplied pragmatically. This temporal contingency is often expressed by a restrictive when-clause or prepositional phrase, as in (14a) and (14b). When not overtly expressed ((14a)–(14c)) or supplied by the discourse (14d), the restrictive event may be understood pragmatically ((14e)–(14f)). So, (14e) and (14f) say that Ian behaves in a dramatic manner on particular occasions not overtly specified in the sentence or immediate discourse context. They cannot mean that Ian is a dramatic person in general, irrespective of his behaviors on particular occasions. Thus, in Green’s (2000:11–13) terms, predicates with be’s represent habitual events rather than generic ones.

  • 14a. John Wayne (always) be’s a man in the face of danger. OVERT
  • 14b. My cat be’s nice (only) when he wants something. OVERT
  • 14c. I hate it when(ever) Ian be’s dramatic. OVERT
  • 14d. A: What does your cat do when he wants something? B: He be’s nice to me. DISCOURSE
  • 14e. I hate that/how Ian be’s (so) dramatic. PRAGMATICS
  • 14f. Ian (always) be’s/is always being (so) dramatic. PRAGMATICS

Payne gives one more great example to contrast stative be and habitual/active be.

Consider the following naturally-occurring example from one of my daughters when she was 12 years old. The context was the behavior of one of her friends who attended a birthday party:

(56) He's not silly; he just be's silly when he's around girls.

This example is particularly telling in that it explicitly contrasts stative beHe's not silly – with active behe just be's silly, thus showing that the speaker had internalized both be's in her lexicon, and considered them to describe distinct states of affairs, one of which she presented as true and the other not.

For what it's worth, the YouTube actor and I are British. Everything Hollenbaugh and Payne say about the habitual be applies to Non-Standard British English as well.

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