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Consider the following phrases (someone is talking with a friend who is challenging some mobsters):

  1. If you are not careful, they will catch you.

or

  1. If you don't be careful, they will catch you.

Is the second option acceptable or usual? Are they both in according with grammar rules?

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    Yes, both versions are fine and standard English. In your 1st version, the verb "are" is an auxiliary BE (e.g. "If you aren't careful …"). In your 2nd version, the verb "be" is a lexical verb--but there are constraints on where the lexical BE can be used. (CGEL page 114, "Lexical be") – F.E. Dec 28 '14 at 0:02
  • @F.E. Glad you left that comment. A question for you now that you've all gone an opened that can of worms in my head. Is BE lexical in "If you're careful"? Do you reckon ... ? (cuz I'm cnfoozed) :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 29 '14 at 2:46
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    @F.E. Will see if I get the chance tomorrow- but I'm done for today. Happy NFLing! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 29 '14 at 3:23
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    @Araucaria Errrrrr-rrr! I'm thinking of maybe actually writing an answer post on this topic of lexical "BE" usage (and an associated nonstandard dialect), just to put down a straightened out layout of what I think is all involved, as I've got a good bunch of comments in my margins of CGEL. – F.E. Dec 30 '14 at 7:42
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    @F.E. Yes, do!! I look forward to reading it :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 30 '14 at 8:17
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Consider the following phrases (someone is talking with a friend who is challenging some mobsters):

  1. If you are not careful, they will catch you.

  2. If you don't be careful, they will catch you.

Is the second option acceptable or usual? Are they both in according with grammar rules?

SHORT VERSION: As to whether or not both versions are acceptable, the answer is:

  • Yes, both versions are grammatical and are considered to be standard English.

In your 1st version, the verb "are" is an auxiliary BE being used in a typical copular usage (usage similar to "If you aren't careful …"). In your 2nd version, the verb "be" is behaving as a lexical be--but there are constraints on where the lexical be usage can be used.

This explanation is based on my interpretation of the info that is in the 2002 CGEL.



LONG VERSION:

Your version #1 ("are not") might be considered to be slightly more formal of a style than a version that uses "aren't":

  • 1.a If you are not careful, they will catch you. -- (original #1)

  • 1.b If you aren't careful, they will catch you.

Both #1a and #1b are using the auxiliary verb "BE" where the verb "BE" is being used as a copular verb. And both versions are fine.


As to your version #2 ("don't be"), the verb "BE" is behaving as a lexical verb, taking do-support in a present-tense negative construction:

    1. If you don't be careful, they will catch you. -- (original #2)

Some background info: CGEL considers there to be six main uses of the verb lexeme BE. In CGEL page 113:

2.5.7 Be

We distinguish the following uses of be:

[62]

  • i. She was a lawyer. -- [ copula be]
  • ii. She was sleeping peacefully. -- [ progressive be]
  • iii They were seen by the security guard. -- [ passive be]
  • iv. You are not to tell anyone. -- [ quasi-modal be]
  • v. She has been to Paris twice already. -- [ motional be]
  • vi. Why don't you be more tolerant? -- [ lexical be]

Your version #2 is similar to [62.vi ], which involves a lexical be usage.

In CGEL page 114 has info related to lexical be usage, including examples:

Lexical be

This is found with why + do and with if:

[63]

  • i.a. Why don't you be more tolerant?
  • i.b. Why doesn't he be more tolerant?

  • ii.a. If you don't be quick you'll lose.

  • ii.b. If he doesn't be quick he'll lose.

  • iii.a. % If you be quick you'll win. -- (grammatical in some dialects only)

  • iii.b. * If he be / bes quick he'll win. -- (ungrammatical)

Their discussion of [63] is:

The why construction [i ] is virtually restricted to the negative: ? Why do you be so intolerant? is at best very marginal. Pragmatically [i ] conveys "You/He should be more tolerant" and thus bears some resemblance to the imperative, but syntactically it is quite distinct from the imperative construction by virtue of having a present tense form, not a plain form. This is evident from the person-number contrast between don't in [i.a] and doesn't in [i.b], for imperatives with a 3rd person singular subject do not differ in verb-form from those with a 2nd person subject (cf. Somebody open the door, please).

The same person-number contrast is seen in the conditional construction [ii / iii ], which again conveys that you/he should be quick (in order to win / avoid losing). This time, however, some speakers allow be in the positive, but with no corresponding 3rd person singular form.

With additional info:

Two points about be follow from the data of [63]. The first is that in these constructions it behaves as a lexical verb, taking do-support in present tense negatives. The second is that for speakers who use construction [iii.a] the lexical and auxiliary uses correspond to different lexemes, for the inflectional forms are different. Lexical be has only the one realisational form be, but it realizes either the plain form (when taking do-support) or (in positive conditionals) a present tense form, distinct from the are that we have with auxiliary be.


What the above CGEL info means is that, with respect to the lexical be usage, there are two dialects of standard English: Dialect A, Dialect B.

DIALECT A: The speakers of this dialect consider only the unmarked examples in [63], which are the four examples in [63.i-ii ], to be grammatical:

  • i.a. Why don't you be more tolerant?
  • i.b. Why doesn't he be more tolerant?

  • ii.a. If you don't be quick you'll lose.

  • ii.b. If he doesn't be quick he'll lose.

The examples are all negatives and used under the constraint of being in constructions involving "why + do" or" if". The examples are using the auxiliary verb lexeme "BE".

These speakers do not accept [iii.a], which is ungrammatical to them: * If you be quick you'll win.

DIALECT B: The speakers of this dialect accept the four examples in [63.i-ii ] that the Dialect A speakers accept, and also accept example [iii.a ] as grammatical, which is now unmarked:

  • iii.a. If you be quick you'll win.

The reason why this example is not acceptable for Dialect A speakers is because it is not a negative.

Dialect B speakers consider all the lexical be usages to be using a different verb lexeme, which is a lexical "BE" verb lexeme, and it is different from the auxiliary "BE" lexeme. That is, they have two different verb lexemes, while Dialect A speakers have only the one standard auxiliary "BE" lexeme.

The reason why Dialect B speakers consider that the lexical be usage to be using a different verb lexeme -- the lexical "BE" verb lexeme -- is because it has its own present tense verb form: "be". For instance, the lexical "BE" lexeme's 2nd person form is "be", while the auxiliary "BE" lexeme's 2nd person is "are".

This lexical "BE" lexeme is rather defective in that it only has a plain form and present tense form, and even the present tense form is defective in that it has no 3rd person singular form.

NON-STANDARD DIALECT: As to example [63.iii.b], it is ungrammatical for standard English. This is why it is marked with "*":

  • iii.b * If he be / bes quick you'll win.

Notice that the example ("he be/bes") uses 3rd person singular, which is not acceptable for either Dialect A or Dialect B speakers.


ASIDE: Note that for many speakers, there is a non-standard alternate for [63.ii.b] in informal or colloquial style:

  • 63.ii.b. If he doesn't be quick he'll lose. -- (standard, CGEL)

  • alternate: ! If he don't be quick he'll lose. -- (non-standard)

And also, as to [63.iii.b], there is a non-standard alternate for some speakers:

  • 63.iii.b. * If he be / bes quick he'll win. -- (ungrammatical, CGEL)

  • alternate: ! If he be quick he'll win. -- (non-standard)


Note that CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

| improve this answer | |
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    +1 nice post. One question for now. What kind of BE is this?: "Be an idiot like that again and I'll fire you". – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 31 '14 at 10:03
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    @Araucaria Yeah, I glanced at that thread. EL&U is not a place for serious grammar discussion, or for accurate grammar opinions. – F.E. Dec 31 '14 at 20:18
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    Your comment above aside, any chance with a reopen, upvote helping-hand here? As you'll see, it's a basic job that needs doing by someone ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 2 '15 at 18:46
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    @Araucaria Done! :D -- But I don't know why you're trying to teach them grammar, like, ya can lead a horse to water but ya cannot make it drink, ya know that one, right? Like, ya know, that place over there has gotten worse during and since the last moderator elections. Them high-rep-SWR-users don't like their grammar ignorance exposed like you're doing, them gonna hate you bad! :D Now I go and amuse me-self by browsing that thread--Reading them folks opinions, that make me feel sooooo smart and knowledgable on grammar! – F.E. Jan 2 '15 at 19:50
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    Oh, come on! One for the road. Just a straight-forward answer ;) Otherwise I'm going to have to get the beeferfan involved and that will be the death of me! :D OK seriously, here's why: there are folks who are going to come onto the site and don't have anywhere else to go.What are they going to read? What kind of help is going to be given to them. What are they going to believe? (Just eat this mushroom, it'll be ok ...) If ELU really gets that bad so that no grammar questions are allowed, what will happen after they pull the plug with ELY to ELL? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 2 '15 at 21:19
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I googled a bit and it seems that this sentence is considered more "formal":

If you are not careful, they will catch you.

The second sentence is grammatical, but is considered somehow less "formal" and is used more often in speech, less often in "formal" writing:

If you don't be careful, they will catch you.

Are and be are forms of the verb to be, which has eight forms in all: be, being, been, am, is, are, were, was. This is the most diverse verb in the English language. "Be" is its basic form.

Why "don't be careful" is not so "formal", despite being used in speech often?

One discussion, at OneStopEnglish, mentions this use. It says that in imperative sentences - when we command someone to do or not to do something - we use the verbs do and don't to support the verb be:

Do be seated; Don’t be stupid.

But in the indicative sentences - when we do not command someone but merely describe something - we don't use do to help be:

I don't be stupid. (! this sentence is wrong)
I am not stupid. (this sentence is okay: the same verb "to do", but now, without the support of the auxiliary verb "don't", it can assume the form am that agrees with the first-person pronoun I.)

But this use of don't to help be (as in "don't be stupid") overflows into if-clauses in spoken language:

If you don’t be quiet, I’ll send you to your room! ("non-standard" sentence used in spoken language)
If you aren't quiet, I'll send you to your room! ("standard" sentence)

Could this "spoken-language" construction be used in all cases? I guess not. Imagine a customer saying to a car dealer:

If this car doesn't be blue, I will not pay you. (sounds weird to me)
If this car is not blue, I will not pay you. (sounds better)


Reference: CGEL, page 113, "the six uses of be" (a short excerpt at the Language Log)

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    +1, but I'm not sure it's exactly true that "don't be" in non-imperatives is extended from its use in imperatives. Rather, I think that it's some varieties of English restrict "lexical" uses of be (the sense of be found in "don't be silly" or "he's being silly") to the imperative/infinitive/subjective be and the gerund/participle being, whereas others allow it to be used as a more-or-less regular verb. Varieties of the latter type will accept "If you don't be careful", or (from a movie preview I once saw) "What do we do?" "We be ourselves." – ruakh Dec 28 '14 at 0:19
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    +1 I think the key difference between If this car don't be blue and If you don't be careful is that these are really two different BEs. BE blue is the ordinary copular use of BE, attributing a quality to the subject. BE careful is the 'behavioral' use of BE, the one we find with BE in the progressive, meaning BEHAVE. "John's a jerk" is copular: it means that's the kind of guy John is. "John is being a jerk* is behavioral: it means that's how John is behaving right now. The imperative is, I think, always behavioral. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 28 '14 at 1:12
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    There is lack of numerical agreement in car don't. You should write If this car doesn't be blue, for a fair comparison with If this car is not blue. – Dawood ibn Kareem Dec 28 '14 at 1:42
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    @StoneyB you got the point, they sound a little different to me because of these two "meanings" of BE. In some languages we can have two variations of BE. The BE like a permanent state or the BE like a moment state. The "are not" sounds like the first one, like a behavior that the guy must have like a part of his own, the "don't be" is like a thing that he may achieve. – Apprentice Dec 28 '14 at 3:14
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    @CopperKettle ... If you're interested in NICE properties and auxiliaries, I did a wee post here and another here. They aren't all that good but I don't know of any others on SE ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 29 '14 at 2:19

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