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He was a big one, to be sure. At his belt he had three calves strung up by the heels, and he unhooked them and threw them down on the table and said: 'Here, wife, broil me a couple of these for breakfast. Ah! what's this I smell?

'Fee-fi-fo-fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I'll have his bones to grind my bread.'

This content is from "Jack and the Beanstalk"

Why is "be" used instead of "is" in this sentence "Be he alive, or be he dead"?

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  • 1
    This is a very good question. – user24743 May 11 '16 at 18:52
  • Be makes it declarative statement. Is makes it a question. It is essentially saying "If he is alive", rather than "Is he alive?" – adelphus May 11 '16 at 19:27
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    I have rolled this question back to its original question. Yuuichi you cannot edit your question to ask a different question after your first question has been answered. Make a new post with a new question, instead – Alan Carmack May 11 '16 at 21:13
  • Yes, the change of the question may confuse answers. – Yuuichi Tam May 12 '16 at 4:35
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I believe this is because the sentence is using the subjunctive mood, which is used to describe hypothetical or unreal situations. The giant is essentially saying

whether the Englishman be alive, or whether he be dead

The subjunctive is a very tricky aspect of aspect of English, and some people argue that it doesn't really exist at all! You don't see it very much in modern English; it mostly appears in forms like

It is important that he see a doctor.

where it isn't very obvious, because the subjunctive "see" just looks the same as the bare infinitive anyway. But when we use the verb "to be", you can see it:

It is important that he **be* here on time.

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  • Thank you for your answer. I rarely came across "Subject + be" like "he be". Is this omitted an auxiliary verb like "would"? And when can I use this? – Yuuichi Tam May 11 '16 at 19:26
  • No, there's no auxiliary verb omitted. This is just the way the subjunctive works in clauses like that. This page gives a good summary of when to use it. What makes the usage in "Jack and the Beanstalk" especially confusing is the way it begins with "Be he alive...", but we do use the subjunctive that way for hypotheticals or conditionals. A common, idiomatic use of it is the phrase "Be that as it may..." which essentially means "Whether or not that is the way that is..." – stangdon May 11 '16 at 21:37
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The giant is making a statement about the conditional

Be he alive, or be he dead
whether he (be/is) alive, or whether he (be/is) dead

Using is turns it into a question

Is he alive, or is he dead (?)

which has a different meaning.

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  • Thank you for your answer. What is the difference between "is" and "be" in this sentence "whether he (be/is) alive, or whether he (be/is) dead"? – Yuuichi Tam May 11 '16 at 19:29
  • The "be" form is in the subjunctive, as mentioned in stangdon's answer above. Grammatical purists claim the subjunctive is still the only correct form in certain contexts, but it sounds very old fashioned. "Jack and the Beanstalk" is a very old tale, so an archaic style feels appropriate. – Lostinfrance May 11 '16 at 23:45
  • Can I say like "whether he would be alive, or whether he would be dead"? – Yuuichi Tam May 12 '16 at 5:12
  • It sounds very formal and a bit verbose but has the same meaning as "whether he is alive, or whether he is dead". – Peter May 12 '16 at 7:45
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I think it's used here as a subjunctive (occurs pretty rarely). So it sounds to me like: "Whether he is alive or not (dead), ..."

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