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Let it be
Do not question English grammar. Accept it. Don't force making sense of it. Uses come first.
[ 2008-08-01 11:20 ]


Let it be

Yan writes:

Once I failed in working out my questions, I turned to you. This time, no exception.

Please tell me why the link verb "be" is used in its root form in the following sentence – "After all, all living creatures live by feeding on something, whether it BE plant or animal, dead or alive, and it is only by chance that such a fate is avoided."

And in another sentence – "Happiness: All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble: BE that here said and asserted once more. And in the like manner, too, all dignity is painful."

It seems that you do not answer grammatical questions, as I found, the ones you do mostly are those that have a deep cultural background, and very difficult for normal people. But, today is my birthday; can you answer my questions as a gift for me? Thanks a lot! Hope it is my turn to get your answers this time. And I think many people also have the same questions. I've asked a few people for help, including the English teacher who is from Ireland teaching my daughter at Kid Castle, but he had no idea either.

Looking forward to your reply, hopefully soon.

My comments:

Happy birthday.

So you see I have nothing against birthdays. You're not the first one to take the "blackmail" route, though, tossing up birthday celebrations to dare me: "Dare you put a damper on my good mood by not answering my question!"

Laughs apart, let it also be said here that I don't want to leave the impression that I cave in to "blackmails" (do you see my legs shaking?) because if I leave such an impression, I'll be inundated with letters with "today's our second wedding anniversary" and such like. In other words, I do not want this to lead to a competition, in which case someone soon will claim to celebrate a birthday twice (or thrice) in the same calendar year (I've seen it happen actually) if their first (or second) birthday-letter fails to gather a reply.

Joking aside, let's get to the question, which is a good one. It is a good question, but you've perhaps asked it in the wrong manner. Instead of asking why "be" is left in its original stark form, you should've asked: "why can't I just accept it as the way it is and let it be?"

That way, you see, I can turn the whole problem back to you. (~_~)

You see, I myself have long stopped questioning why the English speak the way they do. The English are not normal, to borrow your word (I know you meant ordinary). The English are a very peculiar people. And I'm sure our friend, your kid's Irish teacher, will agree with me on this one. I understand, by the way, why our Irish friend has no time for English grammar – The Irish have a grudge to settle with the English for all the terrible things the English had done to them throughout history (ask our Irish friend for details). That's not to say the Irish can't master the English language if they care for it. James Joyce is Irish, as are Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Frank McCourt, naming but a few authors that I've actually read.

The point?

Do not question English grammar. Accept it. Don't force making sense of it. Uses come first. Grammar comes later. Only after a certain number of people say such and such for a certain number of years does it get recorded by grammarians, who can do nothing but record it, be it something that makes sense to them or not. It's a pity, therefore, that years later, people like the Chinese learners study the language backwards, that is, grammar first (and therefore find the whole thing nonsensical to the point of apocryphal).

Now let's be fair to the English people and their lovely language. We Chinese are a very peculiar people (and I'm sure our Irish friend will agree with me on this one), too. Our language doesn't always make sense either. Take the word "brokeback", for instance. According to the Global Language Monitor (Will the Beijing Olympics Finally Eradicate Chinglish? July 31, 2008):

Recently, the Ministry of Education (MOE) accepted some 171 neologisms into the Chinese language. Words were considered only after they passed the scrutiny of a dozen scholars associated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Linguistics. These included a new ideogram for 'brokeback,' a word popularized from the banned movie Brokeback Mountain to indicate 'gay'.

You will find brokeback in few English-language dictionaries, but it already has been accepted into the Chinese.

Ah well, so much for talking sense. Let's get back to the real question why "be" is left in its root form in some cases and if so, can we see some more examples?

To my limited knowledge, "be" is let be out of custom, convenience, economy rather than conspiracy – Certainly English grammar is not the way it is to bewilder the Chinese (and I'm sure your Irish friend will agree with me one more time). In the first example, "whether it BE plant or animal" is more commonly put as "be it plant or animal", saving one more word (whether) and meaning "no matter if it is a plant or an animal". In the second example, "BE that here said" is the same as "let that be said here".

Other examples, again to my limited knowledge, are "be that as it may" and "far be it from me". Both expressions are usually used to open a new sentence while addressing something said earlier in a conversation.

"Be that as it may" means "That as it may be", "That may be so, but", or in other words, even though your accept something as true, it does not change a situation. Example (Longman Dictionary):

"James has been under a lot of pressure at work recently."

"Be that as it may, he ought to spend time with his family."

"Far be it from me", on the other hand, dates all the way back to the Bible (King James Version):

Samuel 20:20:

And Joab answered and said, Far be it, far be it from me, that I should swallow up or destroy.

Followed by "to say" or "to do something", "Far be if from me" means "It's certainly not for me to say this or do that, but (I say this or do that anyway)". You say it to disassociate yourself from something, expressing reluctance when, say, you're going to give someone advice. Here's my example:

Far be it from me to tell you this, Yan, as I'm no grammarian, but I really think you should just accept English grammar as it is.

And let it BE.

Happy birthday and many happy returns.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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