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"Be" is a unique verb, if I am correct, in that it most always relates to:

  1. adjective and ID words (nouns and places),

  2. the progressive tense, or

  3. the passive voice.

But here we have "I was born," with born being a verb.

Would someone explain this to me, and also if there are other verbs, which I think is uncommon, that work with "be" in this sort of way?

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5 Answers 5

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In the sentence "I was born", born is absolutely a verb. Whilst in your mother's womb, she "bore" you, meaning to carry in the past tense. But as the word also means to bring/bring forth, the word childbearing has come to define the act of giving birth. From your mother's perspective, in the past tense, she bore you, and from your perspective you were born.

"Born" in this context cannot be an adjective. If that were so, it would describe your state, in which case how long did it describe you? Did it begin to describe you the moment you emerged? When did it cease to describe you? Are you still "born" (not stillborn) today? Obviously, this is incorrect. If you said, for example, "I was born in London" that means the moment of your birth - the action of you being born - took place there. It certainly does not mean that, for the time you were in London you could be described by an adjective "born". The only context in which 'born' is used an adjective is to describe a person in a particular role or state which has been present since their birth, for example, "he is a born writer".

There are plenty of verbs that work this way. Married, for example. Now, this is slightly different to 'born' because 'married' can be used as an adjective (eg "I am married") but it is also the past tense of to marry, so if you said, for example, "I was married in London" that would mean the act of getting married took place there - again, if it were an adjective it would sound like you were only married while you were there, and you are not married when you're not in London. Educated is another that can be used as a verb or adjective, but to say "I was educated in London" obviously means the action of learning took place there, not that you can only be described as being "educated" whilst there.

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    Hmmm. Interesting. I checked a dictionary, and it clearly listed born as an adjective, meaning "brought into life by birth." After reading your answer, though, I checked several more dictionaries, and most of them did NOT list that adjectival meaning. Perhaps most interesting of all, when I checked Collins, it mentioned an adjectival meaning "brought into life or being", but did so under the label American English. So now I'm wondering if this is a AmEng/BrEng distinction.
    – J.R.
    Apr 23 at 15:59
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    @J.R. The difference between past participles and adjectives is often murky. The same thing happens in French, FWIW: «né» is the past participle of «naître» ('to be born') and an adjective.
    – wjandrea
    Apr 23 at 18:30
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    @J.R. I’m American, and would absolutely never use “born” as an adjective in that manner, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing so either. I think it’s notable that Collins does not give an example of that usage, too. All of the other definitions—which I can absolutely confirm being more-or-less common speech patterns in America—have examples. That one, which seems entirely wrong, does not. It may be archaic, or highly regional, or maybe they actually meant something else and not what it seems to mean? But unless or until I see more, I’m inclined to agree that the word is not used that way.
    – KRyan
    Apr 24 at 16:52
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    @Astralbee If you re-read my comment, you’ll see I’m directly addressing your claim that born cannot be an adjective in the context provided. My point remains the same: regardless of context, philosophic considerations do not determine word class. And no, it doesn’t make any significant difference that Cambridge’s dictionary has been published for longer – both are reputable and credible dictionaries (and not ideal for word class identification). My issue was with the offhand dismissal of Collins Dictionary as not credible just because you (somehow) weren’t familiar with it. Apr 24 at 17:19
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    @Astralbee Oh, I thought you were referring to the comment by J.R. right above yours, which links to Collins. J.R.’s answer links to the American Heritage Dictionary, which is also reputable, but less well-known in the UK. Apr 24 at 17:44
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'Born' is the past participle (of the verb 'bear'), but here used as an adjective. It is spelled that way only when used in the sense of birth (the mother bears the baby). We use the participle 'borne' for all other meanings of 'bear'. There are many participles which can be used as adjectives.

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The word born is not a verb in your example sentence.

The American Heritage Dictionary says:

born (v.)

A past participle of bear.

born (adj.)

Brought into life by birth.

So, in the sentence "I was born," born functions as an adjective, much like the adjectives in these similar sentences:

  • I was angry.
  • I was hungry.
  • I was rich, and then I lost all my money.
  • I was overweight until I started my diet.
  • I was skeptical, but eventually I changed my mind.

Edit: After reading this excellent answer to your question, I did some further research, and it looks like not all dictionaries list this adjectival meaning of born, and those few that do (such as Collins) list it as American English. So the "correct" answer to your question may depend on who you are asking and which flavor of English they are accustomed to speaking.

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  • to be born is the only way in English to say come out of a woman's womb into the world. To be born of a woman, is not like to be angry etc. You can't say: I was angry of something.
    – Lambie
    Apr 24 at 16:23
  • Disagree; "I was born" is using the the past participle of bear. It is perhaps easier to see if you add the implied clause: "I was born by my mother," and perhaps easier still if you rearrange it to avoid the passive voice: "My mother bore me." The latter two are unusual phrases to be sure, but clarifying nonetheless, as all three have the same meaning.
    – JakeRobb
    Apr 25 at 14:58
  • It's not like those adjectives though. It's a verb, because it's an action happening to you. "I was kicked." "I was punched." "I was born."
    – Graham
    Apr 26 at 18:31
  • @Graham - Excellent point, although I can't find a dictionary that defines kick or punch as an adjective, as I was able to do with born.
    – J.R.
    May 1 at 10:16
  • @J.R. It's an interesting one, because dictionary definitions 1a and 1b there are clearly wrong. When your synonym is "created", you clearly have a verb and not an adjective. (Sure it could be a verbal adjective, but dictionaries don't normally list those. "Smiling" for example is only listed as a verb, not as a verbal adjective too.) So I think you've been misled by a mistake in the dictionary.
    – Graham
    May 1 at 13:58
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I would say that "I was born" is simply an example of the passive voice. Just as the sentence "I was hugged" essentially means "somebody hugged me," the sentence "I was born" essentially means "somebody bore me." The word "bore" means "gave birth to."

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While I do agree that the passive voice is the most likely explanation for the origin of the usage, I think that at this point it has ceased to be compositional, and "be born" function much like a phrasal verb. "Be born" can't really be put in the active voice with the same valence.

In the traditional grammar of Modern English, a phrasal verb typically constitutes a single semantic unit consisting of a verb followed by a particle (examples: turn down, run into or sit up), sometimes collocated with a preposition (examples: get together with, run out of or feed off of).

tchrist asks in a comment: "How could this be a "phrasal" verb without construing born to be a preposition or adverbial "particle"?"

Note that I said that it acts much like a phrasal verb.

Wikipedia says:

In the traditional grammar of Modern English, a phrasal verb typically constitutes a single semantic unit consisting of a verb followed by a particle (examples: turn down, run into or sit up), sometimes collocated with a preposition (examples: get together with, run out of or feed off of).
Phrasal verbs ordinarily cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts alone but must be considered as a whole: the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable. Phrasal verbs are differentiated from other classifications of multi-word verbs and free combinations by criteria based on idiomaticity, replacement by a single-word verb, w-question formation and particle movement.

All of this description regarding functionality applies to "be born": it's one semantic unit, non-compositional, and idiomatic. While Wikipedia says that the particle is usually a preposition, it doesn't say it has to be. The word "born" has been separated from its origin as past participle of "bear", and now exists solely as part of this phrase, or with an implied copula (e.g. in the song title "Born in the U.S.A.", the phrase "I was" is clearly implied). So it arguably is a particle.

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  • How could this be a "phrasal" verb without construing born to be a preposition or adverbial "particle"?
    – tchrist
    Apr 24 at 17:18
  • @tchrist I added an answer to this in my answer. Apr 25 at 2:34
  • "I agree"... "I think"... this is an opinion-based answer.
    – Astralbee
    May 22 at 8:24

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