3

Need we add that it be usable in the woods?

This paper1, albeit an old one, contains an example of this odd way of writing. Where I would expect "..that it would/could/may/should/... be", there is nothing! I feel there is some lost information in here.

  • Is this an ordinary way to express oneself nowadays, or is it more archaic, or "upper class"?
  • Is there only one meaning to "it be"?

A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages - Alan C. Kay, Proceedings of the ACM National Conference, Boston Aug. 1972

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    In fact, the "missing" word in the example is neither could nor would - it's should or must. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 1 '13 at 23:18
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The sentence in question is cast in the present subjunctive, which is now almost dead even in written English. It has mostly been replaced by simple indicative forms or, as you indicate, by constructions with would or should.

However, a use which is widespread in US English (and has in the last 50 years been enjoying a modest revival in British English, too) is the mandative subjunctive, employed in clauses which complement a verb expressing an order or requirement: "It is the order of this Court that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead".

In the passage you cite, the author has boxed himself in. He starts by employing would be, which is usual with hope; but in his second sentence he feels obliged by the term constraint to employ the subjunctive: constraint that it be. And having performed that shift, he apparently understands that his final sentence also expresses a constraint:

What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both a medium for containing and. expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire. Another rarely invoked constraint is that it be superior to books and printing in at least some ways without being markedly inferior in others. (The previous remark seems to disallow known commercial display devices from consideration.) "Personal" also means owned by its user (needs to cost no more than a TV) and portable (which to me means that the user can easily carry the device and other things at the same time). Need we add that it be usable in the woods?

It is, to my mind, a graceless use, and should not be emulated. But there's nothing actually wrong or ungrammatical about it.

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  • The writer might also have boxed himself in by using need we add.... If he'd phrased that bit differently, he might have been okay with, say, "On top of all that, it needs to be usable in the woods". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 1 '13 at 23:22
  • I disagree. It is not abnormal to have be when you have requirements. If I can require that it be portable, what is wrong with say that “One requirement is that it be portable”? I can see none. That is a perfectly normal sentence. – tchrist Mar 2 '13 at 1:12
4

Be is used here as a subjunctive form, because the writer refers to a hypothetical state. It (whatever it is) may not necessarily be used in the woods at the moment, but he thinks it should be. The subjunctive uses the plain form of the verb (the form used in the infinitive) and is invariable.

The subjunctive is rare in contemporary English, and, as you suggest, the same meaning is more usually expressed with a modal verb. Where the subjunctive does survive it is perhaps more found in American English than in British English.

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    This paper reports a recrudescence of the mandative subjunctive in BE, probably under US influence. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 31 '13 at 11:20
  • @StoneyB. I've heard this rumour before, but I can't say I've seen much evidence of it myself. – Barrie England Jan 31 '13 at 11:43
  • Well, it's not exactly something you run across very often on this side of the pond, either. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 31 '13 at 12:18
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The paper reads:

Another rarely invoked constraint is that it be superior to books and printing in at least some ways without being markedly inferior in others. (The previous remark seems to disallow known commercial display devices from consideration.) "Personal" also means owned by its user (needs to cost no more than a TV) and portable (which to me means that the user can easily carry the device and other things at the same time). Need we add that it be usable in the woods?

In this context, it be would be considered a shortened form of it needs to be. The author must have thought that the "needs to" didn't need to be said, because that meaning could be inferred from the context – namely, system requirements.

When reading the entire paragraph, this language sounds natural to me, not "upper class" nor archaic. If the first sentence didn't begin with:

Another rarely invoked constraint is that it be superior...

then I imagine the sentence could have been changed to read something like:

It must be superior to books and printing...

but the word "constraint" eliminates the need to use the word "must" like that.

The last sentence might read awkward on its own, but it doesn't read awkward at the end of that paragraph.

As for your last question:

Is there only one meaning to "it be"?

I would guess not; instead, I think it would be context-dependent.

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  • If I require that my food be cooked, is it not a requirement that my food be cooked? Certainly. – tchrist Mar 2 '13 at 1:14

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