To be or too many be-s
There’s many types of English verbs as anyone can see:
Lexical and light verbs and verbs that don’t agree;
And serial and phrasal; but the Verb (with capital ‘V’)
That everyone loves most of all’s the verbiest verb: to be.
Its very many meanings, like trees within a wood,
Overlap like modals (you know, will and can and could).
So, in this little ditty, this wisp of poetry,
Let’s spend some time with be syntactico-semantically.
So first up, be is lexical (means something like ‘exist’),
Or, if you wanna push it, it might signify ‘persist’;
To exemplify the first of these: ‘To be or not be’
(From Hamlet); and the second, take McCartney’s ‘Let it be’.
But be’s not merely lexical; it’s also copular.
In fact it is, in English, the most common COP by far
There’s get and grow, become and turn, and smell and sound and taste;
And seem, appear and look like. But our friend be is the best.
By ‘best’ I mean ‘most common’; I do apologise.
Allow me to redeem myself: I now typologise:
When be acts as a copular it covers many sins,
Linking many kinds of predicates to subjects. Let’s begin.
Different lex’cal categories use be to copulise:
Adjectivals, nominals and prepositionals;
‘I’m happy!’, ‘She’s the queen’, ‘London is slap-bang on the Thames’:
Be, when it is copular, has many kinds of friends.
But not just categorically, also re. semantics:
‘S COP N’ (when N is noun), for those who are pedantic,
Permits a range of predicates. Examples: ‘You’re the Queen’,
‘Plato is a man’, and third, ‘The players are a team’.
I hope that you can see that in the first ‘X equals Y’
(In other words, both nominals depict one entity).
In ‘Plato is a man’, the nominal predicate’s a type;
‘The players are team’ requires a subject that’s a group.
The same is true of adjectives where if we look we find
That individual-level, and two others, stage- and kind-
Relate to (or depict) their subject slightly differently;
But each one links to the subject via the copular ‘to be’.
Now, sometimes be’s not present (that’s the zero copular)
Which isn’t, cross-linguistic-al-ly, that unpopular,
And English has it too, sometimes—‘Out of many, one’
‘The more, the better’, ‘True, that’—where has the copula gone?
The list of meanings of this verb grows longer by the hour!
Oh, what a mighty morpheme! Oh, what grace, what style, what power!
Not just a predicator or a copular is be
It also acts in different ways as an auxiliary.
The passive first; consider this: ‘Newspapers are read’.
This clearly isn’t copular (like ‘Ophelia is dead’),
But be here plays a vital role to make the passive voice:
If you want a passive, please use be; you have no other choice.
What’s the morphosyntax? The participle plus be
(But round the other way; I had to make the rhyme, you see).
Take ‘Cats eat mice’ (the active): the arguments’re inverted;
‘(The) mice are eaten by (the) cats’: the AUX is now inserted.
Now what is this? ‘I’m walking here’ (remember that great line?),
Or this: McD’s ‘I’m lovin’ it’ (it gets me every time).
So now the be’s an AUX again but not the passive here.
It’s that crazy-ass continuous! I knew you knew it would appear!
The morphosyntax differs from the case we’ve been discussing;
It’s be + V + -ing (‘I’m laughing’; ‘you were fussing’).
And these are called ‘continuous’ in English (which is silly
Coz sometimes it’s ‘planned future’ and sometimes it’s quite punctilly).
But hey, we’re talking grammar; the terminology
Although not unimportant is for sure just second’ry;
The issue is the functions that auxiliaries perform:
Be serves two different functions, which just adds to its charm.
(Now there’s other verbs in English which are called auxiliaries.
Have and do’re the usual two: with do we emphasise;
While have, like be does aspect (which is all mixed up with tense),
Which reminds me: let’s talk be! Forgive my lax irrelevance.)
We come to phrasal verbs now. (The schema’s V + P;
But unlike prepositional verbs, which are semantically
Derived from the V nucleus, idiosyncrasy’s
The motto of the phrasal verbs. And some of them use be.)
Be out for; be about to; be at it; or be up to;
Be in on; be against; be right along; be in; be out to;
The list sure isn’t infinite but neither is it short;
And this should not surprise you as it’s be we’re on about!
So that’s quite a lot of action from our big, bad friendly be.
But as in lots of language, there’s another category
That’s quite unlike rest of them. Here’s a good example:
‘There’s many verses in this rhyme’. Welcome, existential!
Perhaps the existential is in fact a predicate:
‘Many verses in the rhyme exist’, something like that.
It’s really quite a puzzle what the existential is;
But it’s formed with be and that’s enough! And now: time for a quiz!
Can you remember all the different uses of to be?
(Many less than seventy-two and several more than three.)
There was lexical and copular and two auxiliaries
And phrasal, existential. My word, what a busy be!
If you can list them all, my friend, right now from memory,
And offer an example (or better two or three)
To illustrate each category, well, then you get a B!
‘How to get an A?’ you ask. Bring in some theory!
Be raises many questions, more than it has uses:
To be neat and sweet and tidy are the things that it refuses.
‘What the heck is be?’ We ask; ‘Why so many be-s?’
To start to answer this we need to draw on theories.
But that is for another time, another little verse;
We’ve given be some facetime and we sure could have done worse.
We’ve found some truths to utter and the truths have set us free:
Some strange, unstable truths about the lexeme known as be.
1,000 words we’ve written—and there are thousands, thousands more.
That’s what language does to you when you let it in the door.
Tiny little word forms, full of strength and glory,
Let them start off talking they’ll tell story after story.
But this story’s nearly ended; we’ll have to let it lie.
But only for a while because big be will never die.
It’s right there at the centre, as be as be can be
It is the best; our honoured guest;
The title fight; the child’s delight;
A work of art; a heaving heart;
The maiden fair; a perfect square;
Athletic youth; inductive proof;
A purring cat; a brand-new hat;
The house, the home; the crown, the throne;
Belief, despair; the sea, the air;
The curly-wurly, hurly-burly,
Hand of aces, belt and braces,
Lexical and auxiliary
Amazing morpheme be!