I’ve just finished reading ‘The story of be: A verb’s-eye view of the English language’ by David Crystal (2017, Oxford University Press).
Until I discovered this book, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the humble word ‘be’.
In writing training, I advise writers to avoid over-using ‘be’. My concern is that ‘be’ in its various forms weakens their writing. Instead, I suggest they look for ways to introduce action into their work.
For example, I might suggest editing:
- Regulations are essential for efficient operation …
- Regulations ensure efficient operation …
And I might suggest editing:
- It is our policy to be accepting of error.
- Our policy accepts error.
So I was surprised to discover a book that devotes 26 chapters to different uses of ‘be’. And, what’s more, it’s a great read!
Crystal writes with charm and humour about how ‘be’ is used in practice – both in modern English and in the past. He provides many, many examples plus relevant cartoons.
Here are some of the ‘be’ uses I enjoyed finding in Crystal’s book:
- The existential ‘be’ (I am. Let me be.) which is often teamed with an existential ‘there’ (There’s a book on the table.). The existential ‘there’ and its friend the existential ‘it’ are things we editors encourage writers to ditch
- The obituarial ‘be’, which can apply to both people and things (She is no more. The election that wasn’t.)
- The identifying ‘be’ (A rose is a rose is a rose.)
- The obligational ‘be’, which often suggests that we don’t want to do something (I am to work today.)
- The nominal ‘be’ (She’s a wannabe celebrity.)
- The repetitive ‘be’, which I remember my grandmother using (You’re cheeky, you are.)
- The quotive ‘be’, which finally gives me a name for a construction I hear daily from teenagers (So I was, like, so excited. And he was, oh, that’s gross.)
- The missing ‘be’, most common in signage (Road closed ahead.)
- The summarizing ‘be’, which provides a lovely reflection on the subject’s importance (It’s a book, is all.).
If you like words and you like thinking about how you use words, you’ll like this book. Who would have thought that reading about a simple verb could be so much fun!