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I'm wondering what's the grammar behind phrases like:

  • We be eating
  • She be sleeping
  • etc

What are the grammar backgrounds for phrases in such form? Can there be any other use cases of such grammar constructions?

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    If used in exactly that way, it's an example of a particular dialect usually associated with black Americans. There is an actual grammar to it, but I'm not familiar enough with the dialect to be able to explain it in detail.
    – Andrew
    Sep 14, 2017 at 16:07
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    You should be careful about using the term "grammar" here, since most Anglophones would consider your examples totally ungrammatical. And for most "analytical" purposes it would simply be called reduced grammar (discarding or simplifying morphological / syntactic aspects of the "standard" grammar for the language). Sep 14, 2017 at 17:54
  • I'm inclined to think in-depth analysis and terminology relating to non-standard / dialectal usages aren't exactly On Topic for a site dealing with learning English. But perhaps I should raise this on Meta rather than closevoting. Sep 14, 2017 at 17:58
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    @FumbleFingers: I think that's a common misconception. It's not reduced grammar: as I understand it, AAVE uses both "we are eating" and "we be eating", with different meanings - as stangdon's answer says.
    – rjpond
    Sep 14, 2017 at 18:03

2 Answers 2

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This is a feature mostly (but not exclusively!) of English as spoken by Black Americans, called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This use of be is called the invariant be or habitual be.

To use your example, with the corresponding "standard" English meaning,

  • "We be eating" = We eat (as a regular or recurring event or state)
  • "We be sleeping" = We sleep (as a regular or recurring event or state)

Do not use this construction in "standard" English, or anywhere you may be misunderstood, because
a) it's incorrect in "standard" English
b) it may be taken as mocking how someone else speaks.

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Stangdon has given one of the two possible answers. The other is that "be" here could be a use of the subjunctive - one that is rather formal and possibly dying out. (In addition to the usage discussed below, subjunctives are also used as mandatives, where they show very little sign of dying out in AmE. But I am not sure that be + a participle would ever be found in a mandative clause.)

Oxford gives this example:

Unlike rival international fairs, be they in London, New York or Maastricht, the Biennale has enormous popular appeal.

This could equally be worded as:

Unlike rival international fairs, whether they be in London, New York or Maastricht, the Biennale has enormous popular appeal.

Thus it is possible to imagine a similar example with be + participle:

Whether she be living near here or far away, I am determined to find her.

Most people would just use the indicative "is", which would be considered equally correct.

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  • Ah, good point. You would find that mostly in a construction like "Should we be sleeping when you arrive..." - I can't quite imagine a construction in which "we be sleeping" occurs at the beginning of a sentence with that same meaning (but then, there are many things I fail to imagine)
    – stangdon
    Sep 14, 2017 at 21:03
  • @stangdon You might be right there - although the OP didn't in fact say whether they were talking about a phrase occurring at the start of a sentence or within a sentence.
    – rjpond
    Sep 14, 2017 at 21:05

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