David Crystal's 'The Story of Be' is a Sustaining Book about a verb

“The Story of Be,” David Crystal’s book (2017, Oxford University Press), is subtitled “A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language.” I’ve given away my reaction in my headline — it’s a Sustaining Book for times when (to paraphrase A.A. Milne, coiner of the term Sustaining Book) I need Help and Comfort in times of Great Tightness about the state of the language.

When I’ve heard “be” poorly conjugated, not conjugated at all, or just dropped once too often, it is a comfort to sit down with “The Story of Be” and read about yet another way it can, well, be used. As Crystal reports in the Preface, “Thanks to its remarkable history, be has developed a greater range of meanings and uses, and a greater range of variant forms, than any other English word — 1,812 so far recorded by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lexicographers.”

So while Crystal’s first chapter title is “To be or not to be,” the variety is far from ending there. Between there and the last chapter, no. 26, are such usages as “Time being,” “How are you?,” “Two and two is four,” (are… grrr!), “My kids are all grown up,” “So be it,” “So I was, like, ‘wow'” (grrrrrrr again), and “How old are you?”

Chapter 26’s title is “It’s just a book, is all,” but I wonder. “The Story of Be” is like a love letter to a word, a balm to a writer’s spirit, and a legible remedy for all the audible errors of the day.

Just a book? ‘Tis not! It was a happy choice for this, my 300th post. Thank you for reading, whether this be your first or your 300th visit.


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  • I wonder about sports guys saying "whether it be..."

  • That could be (sorry, unavoidable) what Crystal calls "the existential be" -- Hamlet's "to be or not to be" --
    the nominal be" -- "wannabes and has-beens" -- or, this being Chicago sports, "obligational be" -- "I am to resign."

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Problem is, there be* no "will" or "to."

    *Adopting their diction, not mine.

  • fb_avatar

    Not to be too obvious, but I can't help myself ... ""It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement ... " Now that is a grrr statement if I ever heard of one.

  • In reply to Larry Adams:


  • Now, I am curious about this book. Thank you for an excellent post.
    Congratulations on Number 300!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thanks and you're welcome. I am happy to spark curiosity!

  • Span...spam....spam...spam... inglorious spam.

  • In reply to jack:

    Found spam. Unapproved and deleted same.

  • I second WG's motion. Congratulations.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you kindly for this and for the tribute at The Quark in the Road.

  • A glass of champagne for your 300th post!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    Thank you.

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