Recently the habitual be has gained wider recognition* among many English speakers as in Max and them boys are drinking way too much. (Montgomery and Mishoe 1999).

(*Edit: By ''recognition,'' I do not mean the acceptance but more the awareness of such a use of ''be.'')

Now I just came across another use in the opening monologue of Selena Gomez's song The Heart Wants What It Wants: ''...But I didn't realize that feeling so confident and feeling so great about myself ...and then it just be completely shattered by one thing.''

What kind of tense or mood is the quoted sentence from Gomez's song in?

I don't think it suggests a habitual state or the sort of commanding tone like ''be'' in the imperative would have as in Be quiet. ...

The other day I also heard a podcaster go ''You just be bored during the pandemic.'' with the word "be" heavily stressed and dragged out. I was wondering if this be would carry the same modality as Gomez's.

Or could it simply have been an abbreviation from ''....and then [to have] it just be completely shattered...''?

I would like to think this use of be is an intentional choice rather than a grammatical error given how the opening monologue is such a brilliant performance made for a music video of exceptionally high production value.

I can feel how using "be" brings more raw emotion to her delivery. I don't quite know why it is so. What do you guys think?

  • 2
    I think that questioning the grammar of song lyrics and podcasts is of limited value.
    – JavaLatte
    Sep 25 at 7:44
  • @rjpond But the thing is if you listen closely to the soundtrack she switched back to the present tense right before that line: ''I'm feeling so so confident and feeling so great about myself ...and then it just be completely shattered by one thing. '' If she skipped a word, it would have been ''can.'' But no one really skips the word ''can'' as far as I am aware. Unless she switched back to past tense again....
    – Jenny
    Sep 25 at 10:40

Here you have one of the synthetic forms of the Subjunctive Mood - the Present Subjunctive of the verb "to be". It can be traced to the Old English period when the Subjunctive Mood was chiefly expressed by synthetic forms. In Old English the Subjunctive Mood had a special set of inflections, different from those of the Indicative.

  • In course of time most of the inflections were lost and the difference between the forms of the Subjunctive and those of the Indicative has almost disappeared. However, in Modern English there are a few synthetic forms of the Subjunctive which have survived; they are as follows: the Present Subjunctive of all the verbs and the Past Subjunctive only of the verb "to be" (were).

In the Present Subjunctive the verb "to be" has the form be for all the persons singular and plural, which differs from the corresponding forms of the Indicative Mood (the Present Indefinite). In all other verbs the forms of the Present Subjunctive differ from the corresponding forms of the Indicative Mood only in the third person singular, which in the Present Subjunctive has no ending ‑s.

The Present Subjunctive denotes an action referring to the present or future. This form may be found in poetry and in elevated prose, where these forms are archaisms used with a certain stylistic aim. It is also used in scientific language and in the language of official documents, where it is a living form.

Some other examples of the Present Subjunctive:

  1. Sometimes it just be me and Faye, up in here. (from "The Butler")

  2. You just be Valentino, she is now Mrs. Nayar. (from "Valentino: The Last Emperor")

  • @rjpond I think that the examples have been adduced just to verify the answer.
    – Eugene
    Sep 25 at 20:05
  • 1
    @Jenny There are mandative (The boss insisted that all be (should) be present) and formulaic ((May)God save the Queen, Be that as it may,... , Be it noted that...) types of subjunctive. The force which the formulaic subjunctive conveys is the expression of will and may also be conveyed by "let" or "may". You won't find "habitual be" in fundumental Grammars. Modern "approaches" are psudo-scientific, superficial and lacking analysis aiming mostly at cramming students with "something". Even in your example it's obviously not a habitual be: "...then it just be completely shattered by one thing."
    – Eugene
    Sep 26 at 18:51
  • 1
    Because it was "shattered" once. It had not been being shattered on a daily basis. All in all if you turn to these types of subjunctive closely you will definitely twig its logic and that it is more akin to your examples or to the usage of habitual be than it may seem.
    – Eugene
    Sep 26 at 21:00
  • 1
    @rjpond Not that I disagree with the term "habitual be". It has the right to exist and it can be useful in some cases. But it does not embrace all variants of using "be" instead of its conjugated forms. "Here will I stay till Caesar pass along" (Shakespeare). Here we have pure Present Subjunctive of an older type. The verb "pass" can be easily substituted for "be". It is not a "habitual be". I think that people in some communities just switch to this form subconsciously, maybe because it sounds more like the elevated style. I tend to regard this "be", habitual either, as Subjunctive.
    – Eugene
    Sep 27 at 14:34
  • 1
    Even in an example (given by your link) "He be coming home late" it can mean "he is coming home late" - it rather looks like Subjunctive.
    – Eugene
    Sep 27 at 14:34

I don't think there are any subjunctives here.

Habitual 'be'

Habitual "be" or invariant "be" is associated particularly with, but not exclusively with, African-American English - see https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/180966/60894 and https://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/invariant-be

Habitual "be" is also often seen in memes, especially in the phrase "be like" - as parodied here: https://memegenerator.net/instance/85168069/willy-wonka-white-people-using-habitual-be-in-memes-be-like-be-like

In the case of the podcaster that you quote:

'You just be bored during the pandemic.'

This could easily be a use of habitual "be". I think this should be distinguished from the subjunctive.

We should note that habitual "be" isn't considered part of "standard English" and isn't taught in EFL/ESL.

Other possibilities

But what about your first example?

'...But I didn't realize that feeling so confident and feeling so great about myself ... and then it just be completely shattered by one thing.'

This could be another dialectal usage, but I am leaning toward your suggestion that it is a syncopated form of an expression that uses "be"-infinitive, such as "and then for it to just be" or "and then to have it just be". This abbreviated form of expression certainly wouldn't be accepted in careful speech or writing, though.

You say, "I would like to think this use of be is an intentional choice rather than a grammatical error given how the opening monologue is such a brilliant performance." But I think that writers, poets, singers, performers will sometimes use colloquial and non-standard expressions or play fast and loose with the formal rules of grammar. This may be a conscious artistic choice.

The subjunctive

The subjunctive (sometimes called the "present" subjunctive to distinguish it from the irrealis "were" form) is identical to the base form or plain form of the verb (which in turn is identical to the bare infinitive and to the imperative, and for all verbs other than "be" it's identical to every present-tense form except for the third-person singular).

The best known uses of the subjunctive are (a) in set-phrases like "be that as it may", "so be it", "long live the Queen!" and (b) in mandative expressions in subordinate clauses following verbs of ordering or suggesting, e.g. "she demanded that he leave".

It is occasionally found in conditionals, but this usage is increasingly archaic, and is not recommended to learners: "be they dead or alive", "whether it be red or blue".

English is well known for the syncretism of its verbal conjugations. That is to say, the fact that often one form servers multiple purposes (infinitive, imperative, subjunctive, etc). It should not be assumed that the label "subjunctive" is appropriate for invariant "be" just because it shares a form with the subjunctive. Indeed, in Dorset dialect "be" routinely replaces "am".

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