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As I understand it, "I am been" is a sentence similar to "I am mistaken". How can one of the sentences in the two sentences of similar structure be incorrect? Doesn't "I am been" mean that someone is being me or perhaps someone was me? Is it incorrect just because it is not used for communication?

I guess, there can be one use of am been. Suppose, there were a robot which could transform itself into any human, say me. Now I will say:

I am been the robot.

Means that, I was being that robot.

I was told that the phrase "I am been something" means that something was being me which is incorrect, because no one can be me. But I created a hypothetical robot which can be me.

Many people have told me that am been can never be correct. I've seen phrases like "I am told", "I am fallen", "I am sick" etc. I don't understand why I am been is incorrect.

Please explain in simple English; I do not know grammar.

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    I had, when I said "I am", been sitting. – imallett Jan 20 '15 at 1:27
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    cute. But maybe too subtle for ELL. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 20 '15 at 2:56
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    Dairy Entry. 2056, January, 3rd, 9:32 am: been waiting for Joan's call for two hours, dammit! Meanwhile, watching both suns rising on this oddly beautiful planet. Where is she? – CoolHandLouis Jan 20 '15 at 5:18
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    @δοῦλος Why is it grammatically incorrect in standard English? As I understand it, "I am been" is a sentence similar to "I am mistaken". How can one of the sentences in the two sentences of similar structure be incorrect? Doesn't "I am been" mean that someone is being me or perhaps someone was me? Is it incorrect just because it is not used for communication? – user31782 Jan 20 '15 at 9:40
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    I am adding your additional comments user31782 to your question. – user6951 Jan 20 '15 at 19:35

10 Answers 10

8
+50

Short answer

The reason that I am been is ungrammatical is that a Predicative Complement cannot become the Subject of a passivised sentence.

Main answer

The sentence

  • I am been

must be considered a passive sentence. The reason is that the auxiliary verb, BE, can only function with another verb as part of a continuous or a passive construction. In a continuous construction it is followed by the gerund-participle form, ---ing. In the passive it is followed by a past participle ( --ed, unless the following verb is irregular). Here am is followed by a past participle been, not a present participle form being and so the grammar says that the sentence must be passive. Really, I should say the grammar says that the sentence must be passive until we look at it properly. When we look at it properly, we can see that this is not a (grammatical) sentence at all.

Let us deal with "I am been the robot" first. Here the Original Poster says that the robot is the thing that is being me. Maybe we can think of this as a kind of action. But in a passive sentence, if we want to show the person doing the action we need to use the preposition by. There is no word by in this sentence, so it cannot be grammatical.

a) Complements

Back to the main sentence I am been. To understand why this sentence is not good we need to understand a bit about verbs and what kinds of complements they take. A complement is word or phrase that has a special relationship with the verb. Verbs often make a space, or 'slot' for a special type of phrase. All verbs make a special space for Subject phrase in a normal, canonical sentence. (A normal, canonical sentence means an active voice, declarative sentence.)

At the moment, we are concerned with the extra phrases, the extra complements, that a verb takes. We can use some verbs with no other complements. Some take one complement, some take two, some even take three.

  1. Bob smokes
  2. Bob eats [cheese]
  3. Bob gives [his elephants] [donuts]
  4. Bob bet [his wife] [fifty pounds] [that Obama will win the election]

To make a passive sentence, we change the grammar, and one of these complements becomes the subject of the new sentence. The meaning stays the same, but the information is organised in a different way in the sentence.

If we look at sentence (1), we cannot make a passive with this sentence, because there is no complement to become the new subject! This is obvious. But how about sentences that do have other complements?

The complements of a verb can do different jobs in the sentence. They can have different functions. How many complements a verb can have depends on the verb. And what functions these complements can have also depends on the verb. We have already talked about one function, the function of Subject. In normal sentences Subjects come before the verb. In this question, we are interested in the complements that usually come after the verb. Look at the following sentences:

  1. Bob punched [the bank manager]
  2. My elephant resides [in a zoo]
  3. The patient became [very ill]
  4. The patient became [a bank manager]

In (5) the bank manager has the function of OBJECT. It happens to describe the thing that undergoes the punching described by the verb. In (6), however, the phrase in the zoo is different. The phrase in the zoo explains the place where the residing is happening, but the zoo isn't the receiver of some residing action. Nobody resides the zoo. The term for the this type of complement in (6) is a LOCATIVE COMPLEMENT. Notice that it does not provide some kind of extra, unnecessary information. It is not an adjunct (adverbial). The verb RESIDE sets up a special space for a locative complement. If we do not have one the sentence is ungrammatical:

  • *My elephant resides (ungrammatical)
  • My elephant resides here (grammatical).

In sentences (7, 8), the phrases very ill and a bank manager have the function of PREDICATIVE COMPLEMENTS. In both cases the phrases very ill and a bank manager give us information about the Subject. In (7) very ill describes a quality of the patient. In (8), a bank manager is an attribute of the patient, it is not an extra person or thing. Notice that example (8) only talks about one person. There is only one participant in the 'becoming a bank manager' process. Notice that what we care about here is what type of job or function the phrases have. It is not important whether they are adjectives or nouns (or adjective phrases or noun phrases) and so on. Both very ill and bank manager are predicative complements, even though very ill is an adjective phrase and bank manager is a noun phrase.

Some verbs, like PUT need an Object Complement and a Locative complement:

  1. We put the elephant in the zoo. (Object=elephant;Locative Complement=in the zoo)
  2. *We put the elephant. (Ungrammatical, no Locative Complement)
  3. *We put in the zoo. (ungrammatical, no Object)

Some verbs like APPOINT can take an Object Complement and a Predicative Complement:

  • The board appointed Bob Managing Director.

Here Bob is an Object, but Managing Director is a Predicative Complement. Managing Director describes Bob at the end of the appointing process. It does not introduce an extra person. There are only two participants in this appointing process, the board and Bob. The phrase Managing Director does not give us a third participant.

Some verbs like GIVE may take two Object Complements:

  • I gave the elephant a donut

In the sentence above, both elephant and donut are Objects of the verb gave. Both of the elephant and a donut describe participants who are acted upon in the giving process. The elephant and a donut are slightly different types of Object, their relationships with the verb are slightly different - but this difference is not important today.

Notice one very important aspect of verbs that take Objects. The sentences that these verbs appear in usually have at least two things or people who are participants in the situation described. Notice that in Bob punched the bank manager there are two people involved in the action. But in the patient became a bank manager, there is only one person; the bank manager is the patient. Predicative Complements do not describe an actual extra person or thing taking part in the action or relationship described.

Compare the following:

  • Bob was being an idiot.
  • Bob was punching an idiot.

In the first sentence, there is only one person taking part in the being an idiot activity. The phrase an idiot is not a separate person taking part in the action with Bob. An idiot is not an Object of being here. But in the second sentence an idiot is a second person involved in the punching an idiot action. Here, an idiot does happen to be an Object Complement. Now consider the sentence:

  • I was being a Robot

Here Robot is not an Object of being. This is not surprising, because the sentence only describes one actor in the sentence: me. The same of course is true if the Robot decides to be me, Araucaria:

  • The Robot was being Araucaria.
  • The Robot was being me.

Here again there is only one actor actually involved in this sentence. Both the phrases Araucaria and me describe something about the Robot's behaviour, or appearance. But neither Araucaria nor me are separate actors in the sentence. These senetnces are describing the actions of a single person, a single entity. Neither Araucaria nor me is an Object Complement here.

b) Functions are about grammar, not meaning

Now, I have described some of these functions vaguely in terms of their meaning, but in reality, these meanings are just a guideline to help us see what kind of complement a phrase might be in a declarative sentence. They can help us guess what kind of grammatical job a phrase might have. We didn't talk, for example, about Subjects, but if we did, we might say, for example, that in declarative sentences Subjects are usually actors of some sort. We might say that they are agents. But although this might be a good way of helping us guess the Subject, it is not always true. For example in the sentence:

  • Pip seems a nice guy

Pip is not doing anything! Similarly in the sentence:

  • There's a new president!

The word there does not describe anything at all. Very importantly, in a passive sentence the subject is often the person receiving the action. The action is being done to the Subject. The Subject may not be doing anything at all:

  • The bank manager was punched by Bob.

Here, the bank manager is not doing anything. Subject describes a grammatical or syntactic relationship in the sentence. And subjects really need to be defined by syntax, not by meaning. The kinds of properties that subjects have, for example, include changing places, inverting, with auxiliary verbs to make questions:

  • Does Pip seem a nice guy?
  • Is there a new president?
  • Was the bank manager punched by Bob?

Here we see Pip, there and the bank manager occurring after different verbs to form questions. Another property of Subjects of sentences is that when they are pronouns that take case, the pronouns will be nominative, not accusative:

  • He seems a nice guy
  • He was punched by Bob.

Above we see the subjects represented by nominative case he, not accusative case him or genitive his.

Now Object Complements and Predicative Complements really need to be defined by syntax, by grammar, not by meaning, not just by the thematic roles that these phrases have in the sentence. In reality, this it is quite hard to do. However, there are some important things we can say. When a verb takes a Predicative Complement this complement can be either a noun phrase or an adjective phrase. Compare the verb BECOME, which takes Predicative Complements, and the verb MEET which takes Objects:

  • The patient became very ill (PC adjective phrase)
  • The patient became a bank manager (PC noun phrase)
  • The patient met the doctor (Object noun phrase)
  • *The patient met ugly (Ungrammatical, Object adjective phrase)

Verbs that take Predicative Complements can usually take bare role noun phrases. This means a singular noun phrase without a or the which denotes some kind of title. Verbs that take Objects cannot usually take bare role noun phrases:

  • The patient became Managing Director (Bare role noun phrase as Predicative Complement)
  • *The Patient met Managing Director (Ungrammatical, bare role noun phrase as Object).

Another property of Predicative Complements is that in a very formal style of English, Predicative Complements may have nominative case, if they are pronouns. Direct Object usually cannot:

  • Who goes there? It is I. (Nominative I as Predicative Complement)
  • It was he who left, not I. (Nominative he as Predicative Complement)
  • Who did he punch? *He punched I. (Ungrammatical. I as Object)
  • I recognise he who left you. (Ungrammatical. he as Object)

c) Predicative Complements, Objects and Passives

We said at the beginning of this post that to make a passive sentence from an active voice sentence, we need to change the Subject. One of the (non-subject) Complements of the acitve sentence, needs to become the Subject of the passive. However, we need to be more specific. Probably the most important grammatical difference between Objects and Predicative Complements, is that

  • Object Complements can become the Subjects of passivised sentences. Predicative Complements cannot

Predicative Complements in active voice sentences cannot become the Subjects of passivised sentences. If we look at all the sentences with Objects in this post, we can passivise them and make any of the Objects the Subjects of the passive sentences:

Active sentence with Object Complement

  • Bob eats cheese
  • Bob gives his elephants donuts
  • Bob bet his wife fifty pounds that Obama will win the election
  • Bob punched the bank manager.
  • Bob was punching an idiot.
  • We put the elephant in the zoo
  • The board appointed Bob Managing Director.
  • The patient met the doctor

Passive version

  • Cheese is eaten (by Bob)
  • Donuts are given to the elephants (by Bob)
  • The elephants are given donuts (by Bob)
  • Fifty pounds was bet that Obama will win the election (by Bob)
  • Bob's wife was bet fifty pound that Obama will win the election (by Bob)
  • The bank manager was punched (by Bob)
  • An idiot was being punched (by Bob)
  • The elephant was put in the zoo (by us)
  • Bob was appointed Managing Director (by the board)
  • The doctor was met (by the patient)

However if we take the sentences with Predicative Complements or Locative Complements and try to passivise them, the passives will all be ungrammatical - because—even though Objects can—Predicative Complements cannot become the Subjects of passive sentences. Neither can Locative Complements :

Active sentence with Predicative or Locative Complement

  • The patient became very ill.
  • The patient became a bank manager.
  • Pip seems a nice guy.
  • My elephant resides here.
  • The board appointed Bob Managing Director.
  • Bob was being an idiot
  • It is I Claudius.
  • I was being a robot.
  • The robot was being me.

Ungrammatical passive sentence

  • *Very ill was become (by the patient)
  • *A bank manager was become (by the patient)
  • *A nice guy is seemed (by Pip)
  • *Here is resided (by my elephant)
  • *Managing Director was appointed Bob (by the board)
  • *An idiot was being been (by Bob)
  • *I, Claudius am been by it.
  • *A robot was being been (by me)
  • *I was being been (by the robot)

We can add to this the Original Poster's Sentence:

  • The robot is me. (me as Predicative Complement)
  • *I am been the robot. (Ungrammatical: Predicative Complement passivised to Subject)

Notice that me in the Original Poster's example is still a Predicative Complement. There is no extra person taking part in the being me process. The robot is the only participant in the being me action!

Conclusion

Predicative Complements of active voice sentences cannot become the Subjects of passivised sentences.

  • A little question: Bob was punching the bank manager ----> The bank manager was punched by Bob Similarly, shouldn't we have, Bob was being an idiot ----> An idiot was been by Bob instead of An idiot was being been by Bob. – user31782 Jan 28 '15 at 15:14
  • @user31782 Ah, sorry that was a mistake:) It should be "the bank manager was being punched by Bob"! Have changed it now. Thank you! Btw, in the question you ask about I am mistaken. We can actually use been adjectivally like this, as a predicative complement.However, this happens only in the phrase been and gone. So you can say I am usually been and gone before they arrive. It is a little unusual though! :-) – Araucaria Jan 28 '15 at 15:21
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    Your answer is great; you are a great teacher. If I get it correctly, The robot is me. (me as PC)-- me is PC because it is taking the position of words like The robot is cool -- The robot is handsome -- The robot is intelligent -- The Robot is me _. Basically is can never take an _object complement-- this is why the participle version, been cannot be used in passive sentences. – user31782 Jan 28 '15 at 15:22
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    @user31782 Yes, exactly so! And thank you for your kind complement too! :) – Araucaria Jan 28 '15 at 15:23
  • I still don't get it. Bob was punching the bank manager ----> The bank manager was punched by Bob. Similarly, shouldn't we have, Bob was being an idiot ----> An idiot was been by Bob instead of An idiot was being by Bob. – user31782 Jan 28 '15 at 15:28
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Short answer: It's always incorrect because it is. It's just something that no native speaker of English would ever choose to say, to express any particular thought.

Long answer: It is possible to conceive of a situation where "I am been" is grammatically correct according to the rules of English. However, it would never be used as such, probably (I think) because you are using "been" in one way, when it's almost always used in another way. Your audience will think you meant to use the word in the usual way, and so they will not understand what you mean.

Let's look at its structure:

I am been = [pronoun, 1st person singular] [to be; present, 1st person] [to be; past participle]

The person doesn't actually matter (the first verb just has to agree with the pronoun); "he is been" is "correct" in the same circumstances, and always wrong for all the same reasons. It doesn't even have to be a pronoun (e.g. "the dog is been")!

So for our purposes, the structure is just:

[subject] [to be; present] [to be; past participle]

Now, what structure is correctly formed as [to be; present] [past participle]? The present with passive voice. Here are some correct examples:

I am wanted. (To want; "Someone wants me.")

I am eaten. (To eat; "Someone eats me, or ate me.")

I am shown. (To show; "Someone shows me.")

(To really be correct, that last one needs an indirect object, e.g. "...to a crowd". But that's not the point.)

On the same model, we might possibly have:

I am been. (To be; "Someone is me.")

Now when would you ever want to say that? I am me. Nobody else is. Maybe if I wanted to say that someone else was playing the part of me in a movie?

I am been by Benedict Cumberbatch.

But that's unrealistic (and not just because of the casting choice). Most likely I would say "I am played by Benedict Cumberbatch." (Or "the role of me is played...")

Now hang on. In the active voice, English speakers do use "to be" in this sense:

Matt Damon is Jason Bourne.

Why is it then wrong to say that "Jason Bourne is been (by Matt Damon)"? It's not just wrong because it's not the "right way" to say it; there are plenty of ways to construct an abnormal ("wrong") sentence that is still understood! No, "I am been" will get you weird looks and no understanding.

My theory is because it resembles several other grammatical constructs, all of which use "to have" instead of "to be" as the first, auxiliary verb. The most likely is the present perfect tense of "to be":

I have been the robot = [subject] [to have; present] [to be; past participle] [object]

If my guess is correct, then when a native English speaker hears you say "I am been", they will assume that you meant to say "I have been", but got it wrong. For this reason, they will not think of the grammatically-correct-but-never-heard examples from above.

The other possibilities are the present perfect with passive voice, and the present perfect progressive.

I have been eaten = [subject] [to have; present] [to be; past participle] [to eat; past participle]

I have been eating = [subject] [to have; present] [to be; past participle] [to eat; present participle]

It may be worth noting that, once upon a time, "to have" and "to be" were almost interchangeable as auxiliary verbs. Only later did they settle into their distinct roles; the use of "to be" instead of "to have" sounds archaic for this reason. ("Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.") But I don't know if, even then, "am been" would have ever been used.

In conclusion: The past participle "been" is almost always used in constructions where it follows a form of "to have". There is a construct where "am been" is technically correct, but because it's never actually used, people will just think you've made a mistake and meant to say "have been".

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    Thank you for the answer. I think that I have to start the study of English grammar. – user31782 Jan 19 '15 at 14:05
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    One can write: I am been by Benedict Cumberbatch, but it does not make it grammatical. I am one who has told user31782 that in modern English, at least, am been is never possible. And I rarely say 'never'. One can say I am being the robot, The robot is being me, and I am being me. But it remains impossible / ungrammatical to say I am been and creating some Sci Fi robot doesn't change that fact. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 18:55
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    @δοῦλος: I would call it a matter of syntax versus semantics. Syntactically, "I am been" is a correctly constructed present passive. Semantically, it is not correct, because it is effectively meaningless to (almost?) all English speakers. So whether it is "grammatical" or not depends on whether you require correct syntax and semantics, or whether syntax alone suffices. When I said it was "grammatically correct according to the rules of English", perhaps I should have specified "syntactic rules". – Tim Pederick Jan 20 '15 at 6:23
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    I don't recognize am been as correct syntax, or that it is 'grammatically correct according to the rules of syntax'. It violates the rules of syntax. We simply don't use been after to be, just like we don't use had in the construction I have had gone. Else, one must also allow for the grammaticality of am been being and other ungrammatical syntax. One can say the reason am been appears speciously syntactically correct is because one is transferring the meaning (subconsciously?) from have been. – user6951 Jan 20 '15 at 15:31
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    Even some transitive verbs are not, or rarely ever, used in passive voice: '*Matt Damon is resembled by Leo DiCaprio.' '*My mother was resembled by me.' Also, @eques – user6951 Jan 21 '15 at 18:52
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English speakers do not speak that way. If you say to me, "I am been", I will be very confused. Been, as a conjugation of to be, follows different rules than verbs like to tell, to fall, etc.

If we replace am with have, the sentence is correct:

I have been a robot.

English speakers generally understand it this way: been references a state of being, in this case being a robot. In English, a state of being is something you must have. You cannot be a state of being, it just doesn't make sense. It's just convention, really. There is no reason for this.

Here are some other verbs you must have, and which you cannot be:

I have returned. If we say "I am returned" this usage is very uncommon and incorrect in modern usage.
He has died. Again, "He is died" is be incorrect usage.
I have completed the job. Again, "I am completed the job" is incorrect.

Alternatively, you can say I was a robot. The difference is in emphasis.

Are you a robot now? No, I was a robot. I am not a robot anymore.

On the other hand, I have been a robot emphasizes the experience:

What is it like to be a robot? I have been a robot, let me explain it to you.

  • If we say "I am returned" this usage is very uncommon and incorrect in modern usage. <== Er, but there is "It is returned due to lack of postage." :) – F.E. Jan 21 '15 at 20:16
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    What is the difference between sentences like, ["I have been told", "I am told" and "I am being told"] ["I have been employed", "I am employed" and "I am being employed"]. The similar of set of sentences that come to my mind are [" I have been the robot", "I am been the robot" and "I am being the robot"] Since "I am been" is not allowed, a hole in my thought process is developed. – user31782 Jan 23 '15 at 8:54
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+500

TITLE: Why is the verb form “am been” always grammatically incorrect?

Many people have told me that "am been" can never be correct. I've seen phrases like "I am told", "I am fallen", "I am sick" etc. I don't understand why "I am been" is incorrect.

Please explain in simple English; I do not know grammar.

Well, let's first look at the expression "I am been": it is a passive construction, where the verb "am" is the auxiliary verb and the verb "been" is the lexical verb of that passive construction.

But, grammatically, the verb "been" cannot be the lexical verb of a passive construction. (Note that the verb "been" is the past-participle verb form of the verb lexeme "BE".)

You're probably hoping for a grammatical argumentation that is understandable. I'm suspecting that such an explanation will most likely be rather long, in order to carefully explain the steps done in that explanation. And it'll most likely be quite interesting to read.


To start off with, let's first see what a vetted grammar source might say about this issue--why the verb "been" cannot be used as the lexical verb in a passive construction (e.g. "I am been the robot").

CGEL page 77-8:

1.3 The past participle

Perfect and passive

The past participle is used in two constructions, the perfect and the passive, where it prototypically follows the auxiliaries have and be respectively:

  • [8.i ] I have written him a long letter. -- [perfect]
  • [8.ii ] The letter was written by her secretary. -- [passive]

Virtually all verbs appear in the perfect construction, whereas the passive is largely restricted to transitive verbs like write in [ii ] or 'prepositional' verbs such as refer or rely (i.e. verbs which take a complement with a specified preposition: refer + to . . . , rely + on . . . ), as in This matter was referred to in my earlier letter. The verbs be, die, seem, for example, do not occur in the passive.

But there are no verbs where the form used in the passive is different from that used in the perfect. For this reason we take the perfect and passive constructions to involve different uses of the same inflectional form, not different forms.

Note the sentence from that above excerpt:

  • The verbs be, die, seem, for example, do not occur in the passive.

That means that "I am been NP" is ungrammatical. We know this because "been" is the past-participle verb form of the verb lexeme be, and it ("been") cannot occur as the lexical verb in a passive construction (according to CGEL).

NOTE: This does not apply to sentences like "I am [being hit]" and "I have [been hit]", which actually do involve passive constructions but the lexical verb of those passives is "hit", not the verbs "being" or "been".

Now, as to explaining why that is so (i.e. a grammatical argumentation that is understandable), that explanation will probably have to be quite lengthy. I might try an attempt to do that, by adding chunks to this answer post to help fill it out, to make it more understandable.


NOTE: Much of this answer post will involve tidbits related to the topic of "Traditional grammar's Part-Of-Speech (POS) versus modern grammar's Categories/Functions/Roles". Er, which is a rainy day sort of topic.


ASIDE: Traditional grammar is the root cause of much of the confusion that people have about the grammar of today's standard English. Traditional grammar conflates syntactic functions (e.g. "subject") with grammatical categories (e.g. "noun phrase"), and often also conflates them with semantic roles (e.g. "agent"), and it's this sort of mixing up that causes much of the problems. It doesn't help that many linguists have been brought up learning traditional grammar and that they are still using its terminology when discussing or teaching a modern grammar of today's English. :End of aside.


Let's look at the example in the OP's post:

  1. "I am been the robot."

A brief syntactic parse for example #1 is:

  • passive construction: auxiliary verb "am", lexical verb "been"
  • subject: "I"
  • pseudo-object: "the robot"

(Note: For the OP's example, I have made up the phony label "pseudo-object" and it is being used as a function label for a clausal complement that was probably meant (by the speaker) to be an object but there is a good chance that it actually isn't one. Also, it is possible that the speaker might have been trying to instead use that clausal complement as a predicative complement (PC).)

The OP's example, which is example #1, is ungrammatical, and that might be a significant factor in why it could be rather difficult for a person to explain how the elements in that sentence are interacting with each other.

So, let's first look at a somewhat similar example (one that is grammatical), one whose passive has a similar form, to understand the grammar that's involved:

  1. "[Mary] was thrown [the ball]." -- [passive]

Here in example #2, it too is a passive construction with one object ("the ball"). It is similar to the OP's example #1 because it too has one object/pseudo-object in the passive construction: #1 has the pseudo-object "the robot", #2 has the object "the ball".

A big difference between the two is in the lexical verb that is the head of the passive construction: #1 has the verb "been", #2 has the verb "thrown". (Aside: This difference in lexical verbs is important, and hopefully I'll remember to explain why later on.)


Let's look at a possible active version that could correspond to example #2:

  1. "[Tom] threw [Mary] [the ball]." -- [active]

Example #3 is a prototypical type of example often used when discussing active voice versus passive voice. Example #3 is a main clause that has active voice, and is transitive, and has two objects.

Let's explicitly identify the syntactic functions that are in that clause structure, and the elements that are realizing those syntactic functions. The syntactic functions in that clause are predicator/verb, subject, indirect object, direct object.

The syntactic functions and the elements that realize them are:

  • predicator/verb: "threw"
  • subject: "Tom"
  • indirect object: "Mary"
  • direct object: "the ball"

NOTE: The syntactic function "predicator" is often identified with the label "verb". I'll try to mostly use that more common label "verb" throughout the rest of this discussion, but the reader must not confuse that label "verb" with the label "verb" that is used later on as a grammatical category (e.g. "noun", "verb", "adjective", "noun phrase", "verb phrase").

Those above elements are members of the grammatical categories of verb and noun phrase (NP):

  • verb: "threw"
  • NP: "Tom"
  • NP: "Mary"
  • NP: "the ball"

So, the discussion has touched on syntactic functions (of a clause structure) and on grammatical categories, and has shown some of their labels. Now I'll try to touch a little bit on semantic roles and semantic relations.

In example #3, there is the semantic relation "throw()" which has three semantic arguments. Each argument overlays a type of semantic role, and in example #3 there are three roles: agent, recipient, theme. The parse for example #3 is:

  1. "[Tom] threw [Mary] [the ball]." -- [main clause, active voice, two objects]

and its semantic relation throw() is:

  • throw( agent: "Tom"; recipient: "Mary", theme: "the ball" ) -- [relation, three arguments]

Notice that the relation is given the same name as that of the verb lexeme, which in this case is the verb lexeme "THROW". Basically, a semantic relation is the same thing as a "predicative" thingie. (Usually a verb is mapped to a relation, but sometimes an adjective can also be mapped to a relation, e.g. "It was tough for him to go face the music".)

It is the relation that describes the bulk of the meaning that is in a clause or phrase or in an expression. So, in general, the verb that is mapped to that relation is also meaningful. But the verb lexeme "BE" isn't really meaningful, and so, it doesn't really map to a semantic relation. This is the main reason, in essence, why a passive construction cannot be headed by the verb "BE". I'll try to show this further on.

And now, let's map the elements of the main clause of example #3 to their associated roles in the relation throw(), and to the syntactic functions that the elements realize, and also, show the involved categories. They are given below in the format element-category-role-function:

  • "Tom" - NP - agent - subject
  • "Mary" - NP - recipient - indirect object
  • "the ball" - NP - theme - direct object

Let's now show the same for the passive version, example #2:

  1. "[Mary] was thrown [the ball]." -- [passive voice, one object]

and its semantic relation throw() with the associated mapping of element-category-role-function is:

  • throw( recipient: "Mary"; theme: "the ball" ) -- [relation, two arguments]
  • "Mary" - NP - recipient - subject
  • "the ball" - NP - theme - direct object

The differences between example #2 (passive) and example #3 (active) are the following:

  • The relation for example #2 (passive) has only two arguments instead of three.
  • Example #2 (passive) has two functions instead of three.
  • Example #2 (passive) has a different subject (the NP "Mary"), whose corresponding element (the NP "Mary") in example #3 (active) was realizing the indirect object function.
  • Example #2 (passive) does not have an explicit agent, while example #3 (active) does.

An interpretation for that example #2 could be:

  • An unknown agent threw the ball to Mary.

We're almost there! Let's now look at the OP's original example, and analyze it with the tools and stuff that we've been discussing.

  1. "I am been the robot."

A parse of that passive construction:

  • "[ I ] am been [the robot]." -- [passive voice, one pseudo-object]

and its semantic relation be() with the associated mapping of element-category-role-function is:

  • be( role?: "I"; role?: "the robot" ) -- [relation, two arguments]
  • "I" - NP - role? - subject
  • "the robot" - NP - role? - pseudo-object

An interpretation for that relation be() in example #1 could be:

  • It is doubtful that there could be any interpretation, because the verb lexeme "BE" is practically empty, or mostly empty, of any semantic meaning, and the clauses where it is used as the head verb are in active voice, not passive: for example, "There is a frog in the box", "It is five o'clock", "It is tough to live the life of a frog", "You are not to tell anyone", "She has been to Paris twice already", "Why don't you be more tolerant". All those examples are in active voice.

  • There are copular constructions that are headed by a verb form of the verb lexeme "BE", but copular clauses are in active voice, not passive voice. Examples are: "Tom is tall", "Bill is a thief".

If we try to look at some active voice versions that might possibly correspond to the OP's example #1:

  • a. "[unknown] is [me] [the robot]." -- [active voice]
  • b. "[unknown] is [the robot] [me]." -- [active voice]

We might be expecting, or hoping, that both active versions would most likely also be meaningless. But interestingly, there are sentences like:

  • c1. "It was me the robot." -- [active voice]
  • d1. "There was me the robot." -- [active voice]

Both #c1 and #d1 are grammatical, but they do not have passive counterparts. An attempt can be made to create corresponding passives:

  • c2. * "I was been the robot." -- [ungrammatical]
  • d2. * "I was been the robot." -- [ungrammatical]

but they are not grammatical:

  • Example #c2 is ungrammatical because: the NP "the robot" in the active #c1 is an appositive, and so, #c1 cannot be passivized into #c2. (Er, is this true and can this be explained better? Also, there are two interpretations for #c1, one where it is a truncated it-cleft, the other where it uses a real pronoun "it" (thus, a copular clause), and so, that probably ought to be explained too.)
  • Example #d2 is not the passivized counterpart to #d1 because: if #d1 is seen as an existential construction, then #d2 is ungrammatical because supposedly there is no such thing as a passive existential construction; otherwise, #d1 is using a pointing deictic "there", and #d2 is missing that, er, adverbial element, and so, #d2 doesn't have a passive meaning that could correspond to #d1. (Er, hmm, this explanation might be inadequate?)

Both examples #a and #b:

  • a. "[unknown] is [me] [the robot]." -- [active voice]
  • b. "[unknown] is [the robot] [me]." -- [active voice]

seem to possibly have the appearance of copular constructions, but examples #a and #b have two internal functions that are realized by the NPs "me" and "the robot". And that might be kinda unusual--and that might suggest that perhaps a copular construction cannot have a form like that. (Unfortunately it can, as we find out later below.)

Though, there can be sentences that appear to be somewhat similar to #a and #b, except they use a different verb (a verb that has a meaningful semantic relation), for instance:

  • "[Sue] considers [Tom] [a thief]."

So a question now is, can there be any grammatical sentence that has a similar form but uses a form of the verb "BE" instead of "considers" (which would then be a copular clause)--that is, has the form of #a or #b?

To answer that question, let us make an attempt to look for, or create, some actual sentences that have the form of either example #a or #b. We can do this by filling in the missing "unknown" subject for #a and #b. At first blush, such an attempt, where we realize their subjects with various candidates and then show that they all fail, might seem doable. But actually that could involve very many candidate sentences, because subject function can be realized by many different grammatical categories, such as:

  • noun phrase: "[The dog] was sleeping."
  • fused relative: "[What books she has] are in the attic."
  • preposition phrase: "[From here to London] is over fifty miles."
  • adjective phrase: "[Rather too big for your boots] is what you are, my boy."
  • declarative clause: "[That he is trying to hide something] is all too plain."
  • exclamative clause: "[What a blunder it was] didn't emerge till later."
  • interrogative clause: "[Why he resigned] remains a mystery."
  • infinitival clause: "[For you to accept liability] would be a serious mistake."
  • -ing clause: "[Not informing the neighbors] was a serious mistake."

And so, trying various possible multiple members from each category to be the subjects in examples #a and #b can end up with many, many possibilities.

As we attempt this, we quickly come up with at least this counterexample:

  • "[The individual that they have chosen] is [me] [the robot]."

and so, we find that example #a can be grammatical, which is unfortunate for us because this means that this last line of exploration cannot be used to explain why the OP's original example #1 is ungrammatical.

So, the end result seems to be that today's standard English just doesn't allow passivized copular clauses. (Is this accurate? [shrugs])

Notes:

  • But why is this so? Maybe historical linguistics has something useful to say on this topic?
  • That a copular clause cannot be passivized might be related to the "double -ing constraint", or it might not.
  • That a copular clause cannot be passivized might be related to the difference between active and passive constructions, or it might not. Though a passive clause is often used for dynamic situations, it is also commonly used for stative situations, e.g. states.

CONCLUSION:

  1. "I am been the robot."

The reason why the OP's original example #1 is ungrammatical is because it is a passive main clause whose lexical verb ("been") has no significant semantical meaning. Although its semantic relation be() has two arguments, those arguments cannot be aligned with any meaningful semantic roles.

As CGEL stated on their pages 77-8, the past-participle verb form of the verb lexeme "BE" cannot be the lexical head of a passive construction. And that is exactly what the OP's example #1 is trying to do: it is using the past-participle verb form "been" as the lexical head of a passive construction.

Hopefully everything is now as clear as mud.


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

Many examples used in this answer post were borrowed from CGEL.

3

In English the Perfect is formed with to have (have/has) + past participle. The passive is formed with forms of to be + past participle. But to be has no passive, so "I am been" is no possible structure, even if you build hypothetical robots. You would say "I was" or "I have been".

  • Is "I was been" correct? – user31782 Jan 19 '15 at 12:59
  • 1
    No, you can't connect a form of to be (am,are,is,was,were) with been. – rogermue Jan 19 '15 at 13:02
  • 1
    @user31782 Yes, rogermue said "I was / I have been" by way of offering you two distinct, mutually exclusive choices. That's an either/or proposition, and it's an error to conflate them. You cannot say "I was been" or "I am been". The quickest route to satisfaction for you might be to take those assertions as articles of faith (in other words: just trust us, we know whereof we speak). – Dan Bron Jan 19 '15 at 13:37
  • 2
    @user31782: I understand your confusion, because at first, I also thought rogermue was saying "I was been" was okay! To clarify: the alternatives were "I was", and "I have been". They are not "I was been" and "I have been". – Tim Pederick Jan 19 '15 at 13:46
  • 1
    You can also say I am being me, The robot is being me But the whole scenario is concocted, because the original person is still in existence when the robot is being the person. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 19:00
3

"am been" is not grammatical in Standard English ever because the verb "to be" (which been is a form of) can only be used in the active voice, but "am" + participle (I am told) is a passive construct.

Another way to think of active vs. passive. In an active sentence, the action goes from the subject out (often to an object, the direct object). In a passive sentence, the action comes towards the subject. "To be" never has an object that receives the action (it has what would be called a complement instead).

It may not violate basic syntax rules. That is, typically "I am" can be followed by a participle. However, it does violate basic semantic rules (still part of Grammar) in that you cannot have a past participle of an intransitive verb (to be is always intransitive) used with to be

Compare:

I am told...

is ok because

(Somebody) told me...

is the equivalent sentence

I am mistaken

is also a little different

In this case, mistaken is an adjective referring to the state of having made a mistake. Less commonly, it's a passive of "to mistake" as in "I am often mistaken for an athlete" (meaning the speaker is not an athlete but people sometimes take him to be one).

Other details relating to passive For some verbs (in at least some dialects) other arguments can be "promoted" to the subject in a passive sentence.

I gave the book to Robert

Could become

The book was given to Robert (by me)

or

Robert was given the book (by me)

Similarly, there are other verbs where a preposition (words like in, on, under) can act like part of the verb (like a phrasal verb). These can sometimes become a passive sentence with the preposition dangling (in some dialects this is not encouraged)

He set down the books

becomes

The books were set down

OR

Robert slept on the couch

Becomes

The couch was slept on (by Robert)

2

As you have mentioned that you don't know grammar and prefer to learn "as if it were [your] first language", my original answer is rather beside the point now! I am adding this answer separate to my original, though, because it's led to a lot of comments that I think can still be worthwhile for others.

This time I won't mention any grammar terms, I promise!


As you say, "I am been" has the same structure as "I am mistaken". However, "been" isn't allowed in this structure. A lot of languages have words like this: words that can't be used in some places, even though others can.

Your own native language might have similar words, although I don't know what your language is, and I probably don't know anything about it!


If you did say "I am been", what would an English speaker think? Here are some possibilities.

  1. "User31782 is trying to say 'someone is being me'."
  2. "User31782 meant 'I have been' but chose the wrong word."
  3. "User31782 meant to say 'I am being', or actually did say that and I misheard it."

To someone learning English, Situation #1 might seem the most obvious, but it is actually very unlikely. Because "I am been" is never used, people will think "you must have meant something else" rather than "you mean exactly what you said, and just chose an odd way of saying it". (If you wanted to say "someone is being me", you could use exactly those words. Even then, a native speaker would probably use a different word, e.g. "imitating").

I might say that Situation #3 is the most likely; it sounds like what you said (if you're speaking, not writing), and it means something similar to what you were aiming for ("I am being a robot" is correct English).

But lots of other answers and comments have assumed that you meant to say "I have been" instead, which suggests that I'm wrong and Situation #2 is the most likely.

1

I'd explain it as... they're different tenses of the same verb-concept, "to be"/"is."

I am. Present tense. I was. A past tense. I have been. Another of the past tenses. I had been. A past perfect tense. I will be. A future tense. You can't do "am been" because "am" is present tense, and "been" is part of a past tense. And you wouldn't do "I am be" because that would be redundant -- "am" and "be" are the same concept of someone existing or possessing a quality.

I am happy. I will be happy. I have been happy. He is happy. He will be happy. He has been happy. I am a robot. (Present.) I will be a robot. (Future.) I have been a robot. (Past.) I was a robot. (Also past!)

So, basically, "am been" is never correct in mainstream American because it is mixing present and one of the various past tenses. I suppose there might be some dialects of English that would use it, but I would suspect they come from sound-shifts of "I have been" => I've been => I'm been" => "I am been" -- or from other deliberate alterations for fun that caught on and spread. (Like LOLcats have spawned "can has" as a non-grammatical but sometimes popular version of "can have.")

  • What kind of sentences are these: "I am tired", "I am told"and "I am finished". Aren't these joining the present and past concepts? – user31782 Jan 23 '15 at 8:42
  • "I am tired" says "I have the quality of tiredness." – A.Beth Jan 23 '15 at 19:01
  • 1
    Combining "am" & a NON to-be verb isn't the same as combining TWO to-be verbs of different tenses. You can't say "I was am" or "I am was." & you can't say "I am have been," so you can't say "I am been." (Technically, you can't use "been" alone anyway! It must be "have been" or "has been.") "I have been tired" and "I was tired" both use varying types of past tense of "to be." "Am" and "is" are varying types of present tense of "to be." You can't combine tenses of "to be." "I am will be" = wrong. "I am was" = wrong. "I am have been" = wrong. And so "I am been" = wrong. – A.Beth Jan 23 '15 at 19:14
  • 1
    Ooo, excerpt! Okay! -- "I am in many nows at once," said the man who claimed he was a time-traveller. "I am spoken to you in this past, and been speak to you tomorrow, I am been speaking to you at all times. You are remembering it as only one conversation, during your tomorrow, but there is no now. There is all whens." -- Basically, using the mixing of tenses to try to convey the weirdness of smearing your consciousness through time concurrently instead of experiencing moments consecutively. – A.Beth Jan 24 '15 at 5:41
  • 1
    But one can combine to be and being, as in I am just being myself/me and She was being Meryl Streep (=imitating or behaving like). – user6951 Jan 24 '15 at 16:42
-1

I am a wooden puppet today. But tomorrow, I will become a real boy, if I get my wish, and I will then be made of flesh and blood. Then I will be able to say, I have been a wooden puppet, but now I am human.

  • This doesn't answer the question. – curiousdannii Jan 20 '15 at 0:29
  • 2
    @curiousdannii - I think it does answer the question, albeit indirectly. The correct way to say what the O.P. wants to say is: "I have been a robot," not, "I am been a robot." This gives a corresponding example using Pinocchio. – J.R. Jan 20 '15 at 0:58
  • 5
    @J.R. An experienced user like TRomano should know to be explicit. This is just a sentence. It doesn't explain why, which is what the question is actually asking. – curiousdannii Jan 20 '15 at 1:44
  • @curiousdannii - That may be true, but I'm hoping that my comment rectifies that. – J.R. Jan 20 '15 at 9:38
  • Honestly speaking, I do not understand most of the idiomatic English that most of the English speakers. This is why I want to learn English without learning grammar of it; just like how I learned my native language. I want to learn English as if it were my first language, but it doesn't seem possible now. – user31782 Jan 20 '15 at 9:46
-1

If your fundamental meaning is "Someone is being me." ... then I think "I am been." is in fact grammatical.

It's just damn weird.

  • If I understand Araucaria's answer correctly, then "I am been" is in fact ungrammatical. – user31782 Jan 28 '15 at 17:20

protected by user6951 Jan 20 '15 at 15:32

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