Grammatical irregularities in a foreign language can drive you nuts, but grammatical regularities are worse – when you expected them to be irregular, that is.
English is a second language to me, and I dutifully learnt 38 years ago that most verbs are turned into questions require the auxiliary to do: ‘Where do you live?’ rather than the Shakespearean-sounding ‘Where live you?’ But this is not not true for to be: ‘Where are you?’ is fine.
So far, so good. Until the other day, when on the Wait But Why blog (much recommended) I came across this question: ‘How do you be a good person?’
Having recovered from my astonishment, I tried to analyse the sentence. The ‘logical’ alternative would of course be, ‘How are you a good person?’ But I can see why the writer shouldn’t want to put it that way. Unless I’m much mistaken, it sounds pretty offensive, suggesting as it does that the other person is everything but a good person. That was not what this writer meant. She just wanted to ask, ‘How do you go about being a good person?’, ‘What are you to do so as to be a good person?’
So I think that in her ‘how do you be’, be was sort of shorthand for ‘get to be’, ‘become’, ‘act so as to be’, all of which do require the auxiliary verb to do in questions. Usually to be and its other forms (am, were, etc.) are just an inconspicuous glue, connecting the subject to some adjective, noun or both: the turtle is slow, a turtle is an animal, turtles are slow animals. In this case, however, it had a much stronger, ‘pregnant’, meaning. That’s why it behaved like one of those normal verbs with strong meanings, like to act, to wallow, to dehydrate and thousands more. Or so I think.
Which made me wonder if I could come up with an example of my own. Here then is another sentence where a form of to be has a different, but similarly pregnant meaning: ‘A wise person doesn’t do much, a wise person just is.’ I believe, or perhaps I just hope, that if I turned the latter phrase into a question, it would be okay to say, ‘Does a wise person just be?’
But as ever, that’s for native speakers to decide. Feel free to let me know!
To be honest, I don’t think the initial example, “How do you be a good person?”, was written by a native speaker, either. It would sound more correct if they had asked, “How can I be a good person?” (making it personal) or change it completely to something like “What is a good person like?” (impersonal). I find myself correcting my (Dutch/English speaking children’s questions along the lines of “How is an elephant?” into questions based on the more natural-sounding structure “What is an elephant like?” So this type of “How is” question is an interference from another language. You can use it in English in questions like “How is the weather / your father’s back / the garden?”, but that is asking about current condition rather than general description. I am making up this theory as I go, but there may well be a real linguistic rule.
As for your wise person, your question also sounds rather peculiar, though as a previous commenter said, the statement sounds like something you might read in a self help book or a meme: “Just be, man. Peace out!” Perhaps the question could be phrased “Should a wise man just be?”, but I think you would have to give it context otherwise it sounds decidedly odd.
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Your idea that the initial example was not written by a native speaker may or may not be correct. I think it was Katerena Kuksenok who wrote it. According to her LinkedIn profile, she speaks English, German, Russian and Ukrainian, which makes it less likely that she grew up in the US, though she may have picked up the Slavic languages from her parents (Kuksenok is a Slavic family name) and German at school or in Germany, where she currently lives. (As you can see, your suggestion awakened the digital Holmes in me.)
This seems to be the area of static versus non-static verbs (I don’t like the conventional term, “action verb”).
The way to distinguish the two, (without getting metaphysical) is to see if they can be used in a continuous form.
For example, “to have” in the sense of “to possess” (a static verb) cannot be used in a continuous form, e.g. “I am having a new car.”
“Be” likewise is usually static, so we don’t say, “The earth is being the third planet from the sun.”
But both “have” and “be” exist in non-static form.
“I am having lunch” is fine because “have” doesn’t mean “possess/own” here. It is an action. You could just as well substitute it with “eating”.
“Be”, too, has a non-static counterpart meaning “acting”. So you can say “You’re being very pedantic, Bill”. Or for that matter you might say “I am being quite lenient with you”, which gets closer to your phrase, “How do you be a good person?” There is in the question, whether the writer meant it or not, a whiff of the insincere, as if you can make yourself act like a good person.
Of course, there may be a shift in the distinction between these two verb types going on. The young seem to be totally at ease with slogans like “I”m lovin’ it”. For older dudes, the static verb “love” might only be accepted as an “action” verb if it has implications of a physical nature!
Thanks Bill, nice and convincing analysis. I do not quite get the connection with ‘I’m lovin’ it’. How is ‘love’ in the junkfood context a non-static or action verb? I can’t see what the person is doing.
“Love” is, believe it or not, a non-static verb! Usually, we say, “I love you”, but not “I’m loving you” (same goes for “hate”, “like”, “dislike”, “prefer”, etc.) so “officially” I’m loving it (the McDonald’s slogan here in Spain, at least) is not standard usage (whatever that means in English!). So the interrogative would be “Do you love me?”, etc.
I think the slogan is using “love” a bit like “enjoy”, which *is* an action verb! Argh! You can say “I’m really enjoying this”. Go figure!
Wait a minute – didn’t you say that static verbs cannot, in standard English, be used in a continuous form? Or are you saying that millennials no longer consider ‘love’ a static verb, even though to centenarians like you and me it still is? I think I’ve got it: could it be the case that where you write ‘non-static’ (in the ‘believe it or not’ sentence’) you really mean ‘static’?
Here is my take. It does look odd. Agree. There’s a reason, though. It is a case of not being able to convey the spoken nuance in the written language. So it isn’t very good writing. Sorry.
There is a relatively recent meaning of ‘be’ (a few decades), from the California-yoga-new-age vernacular. ‘To be in the sense of relishing the act of being, become part of nature, taking in the feeling of how much you are like a flower or a butterfly. Such a tiny word to carry a huge metaphysical meaning! So we have to make the word bigger.
The linguistic part: when spoken, the word ‘be’ in this meaning has an extra long vowel–as long as you like in fact (how about all afternoon?)
When I go on vacation, I like to sit on a deck somewhere and just be-e-e-e.’
If you don’t make it super-long, at least you stress it and pause. Intonation: raise the voice and then let it slide down gently (like a butterfly landing on a flower).
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That’s a great explanation, and wonderfully worded. Thank you, PT!