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In this comic occurs the phrase:

Why don't you be more social?

This sounds wrong to me, but I'm not sure why. Can the phrase Why don't you be... be correct? If it is correct, how does the meaning differ from Why aren't you ...?

Googling lists lyrics of some songs, but I do not dare take that as a reference for grammatical correctness.

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  • Can you explain why you think there might be something wrong with this construction? Are you happy with "I want to be more social", and "Why don't you relax?", for example? FWIW I myself am perfectly happy with both of those, and don't see anything significantly different in your example. – FumbleFingers Jul 9 '13 at 23:09
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not sure, it just sounds wrong to me. I've edited the question. – gerrit Jul 9 '13 at 23:11
  • I think maybe it's just that you wouldn't hear it very often, because in practice people would be much more likely to say "Why can't you be more sociable?". (Well, I think they'd use sociable rather than social, but that's a personal opinion.) But the don't/won't/can't choice is just a matter of idiomatic preference - nothing to do with "grammatical correctness" as such. – FumbleFingers Jul 9 '13 at 23:14
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NOTE: Like FumbleFingers, I'm more comfortable with sociable here, so I'm going to use that instead, but it makes no difference at all to what I'm saying. If you're interested, the matter has been discussed on ELU.

These two questions reflect somewhat different meanings of BE when used of persons.

When we say of someone that he is sociable (or gracious or funny or a complete jerk) we are speaking about their character, who they are.

But when we say of someone that he is being sociable we are speaking about their behavior, how they are for the time being acting.

Similarly, when you ask someone "Why aren't you more sociable?", with the simple-present verb, you are asking about the simple-present version: "What is the cause of your unsociable character?"

But when you ask "Why can't you (or won't you or don't you—they amount to pretty much the same thing) be more social" you aren't really asking a question, you are challenging their behavior: "You really ought to behave more sociably, and I can't understand why you don't."

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  • It's like ser vs. estar in Spanish. – Daniel Jul 10 '13 at 15:23
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"Why don't you be more sociable?" can be correct, if it refers to one, particular, occasion.

"Why aren't you more sociable?" would be correct if it is meant generally.

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