Invariant be

“Platform heel shoes be making your feet hurt.”

(Green 2000:13)


We use the labels “Invariant be” and “Habitual be” to refer to instances of be that are found in sentences such as the ones in (1) and (2):

1) She be telling people she eight.
(Green 2002:48)

2) I be in my office by 7:30.
(Green 2002:48)

As pointed out in Green (2002), sentence (1) can be paraphrased as ‘She’s always telling people she's eight’ or ‘She always tells people she’s eight’, and sentence (2) as ‘I’m usually in my office by 7:30’. This suggests that such sentences are interpreted similarly to those with the adverbs often and usually, that is, as conveying that an event happens frequently, or habitually. It is because of this characteristic interpretation that sentences of this type are often described as containing “habitual be” (or “distributive be”). We will use the label “invariant/habitual be.”


Who says this?

Invariant/habitual be is characteristic of African American English, as has been noted starting in the late 1960s (Loflin 1967, Fasold 1969, Fasold 1972, Labov et al. 1968, Wolfram 1969, among others).

It is also found in a number of regional varieties of English among speakers who are not African American, as first pointed out in Bailey and Maynor (1985), based on data from east-central Texas, and Bailey and Bassett (1986), based on work in East Louisiana, Gulf Mississippi and Lower Mississippi. Montgomery and Mishoe (1999) report that this kind of be is attested among white speakers in certain coastal counties in North and South Carolina (their paper focuses on Randolph County, North Carolina, and Horry County, in South Carolina), and give examples like the following:

3) a. Max and them boys be drinking way too much.
(Montgomery and Mishoe 1999)

b. Sometimes I have spells. Lately I be having more and more spells.
(Montgomery and Mishoe 1999)

Mufwene (2008, 2013) reports that habitual be is attested in Gullah, which is spoken by African Americans residing in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia (see Jones-Jackson 1987; Mufwene 1997, 2008; Rickford 1986b, 1990; Weldon 2006; among others).

Outside of the United States, linguists have noticed the presence of invariant/habitual be in Newfoundland English (Clarke 1999, 2008), in Caribbean English (Rickford 1986a), and in Hiberno English, spoken in Ireland (Hill 1975; Harris 1982, 1985; Kallen 1986; among others). Rickford (1986a) points out that, in Southern Ireland, do be (rather than be) is used to convey that something happens habitually:

4) a. They be sick a lot.
(Northern Irish English)

b. They do be sick a lot.
(Southern Irish English)

Syntactic and morphological properties

Allowed predicates

Invariant/habitual be follows the subject and occurs before several types of phrases that describe an event, like an activity or a state. In linguistic terms, we call such phrases predicates. There are several possibilities for the predicate that follows be. First, it can be a verb ending in -ing:

5) On days like this I be wishing things were different.
(Dayton 1996:241)

6) Bruce be crying when the teacher call his mother.
(Green 2000:11)

Second, it can be a verb in the passive form:

7) I be told in my sleep to go to church.
‘I’m usually told in my sleep to go to church.’
(Green 2002:98)

8) Any comments right quick before I be thrown out?
‘Are there any comments before I’m taken out of the class?’
(Green 2002:98)

Third, it can be an adjective:

9) a. The eggs be soft.
‘The eggs are usually soft.’
(Green 2011:51)

b. I be tired.
‘I’m usually tired.’
(Green 2002:98)

c. He be sick.
‘He’s sick all the time.’
(Fasold 1969:772)

Fourth, it can be a noun phrase:

10) Usually I be the one that have to go find everybody.
(Fasold 1969:764)

11) John be the choir director.
(Harris in progress)

Finally, it can be a prepositional phrase:

12) Most of the time they be up on the playground.
(Fasold 1969:764)

13) The marbles be in the jar.
‘The marbles are usually in the jar.’
(Green 2011:51)

With questions

When a sentence with invariant/habitual be is a question, an instance of do (or, less frequently, did) precedes the subject:

14) a. Do Stefen be coming home late?
‘Does Stefen usually come home late?’
(Harris in progress)

b. Did there be silver pennies in 1943?
(Fasold 1972:180)

In a negative context

When a sentence with invariant be is negative, the negative marker is don’t:

15) a. After school is out, I don’t be home on most occasion.
(Fasold 1969:769)

b. He don’t be in school.
(Fasold 1972:152)

c. Well, see. I don’t be with them all the time so I can’t pick out one specific leader.
(Fasold 1972:154)

d. Christmas Day, well, everybody be so choked up over gifts and everything, they don’t be too hungry anyway.
(Fasold 1972:171)

With adverbs of frequency

Invariant/habitual be can occur with adverbs that express the frequency with which an event tends to happen, such as always, usually, often, though such adverbs are not required. Some examples are given below from Green (2002:51):

16) a. I always be looking for somewhere to waste time.

b. I usually be looking for somewhere to waste time.

c. I often be looking for somewhere to waste time.

d. I never be looking for somewhere to waste time.

Is invariant/habitual be really invariant?

As the name suggests, invariant be tends to occur as is, without any inflection; indeed, we never find it with the suffix -ing, -ed, or -n’t. However, it is possible to find it with -s. This has been reported for African American English, as in the following:

17) Well, that’s the way it bes.
‘Well, that’s the way it usually is.’
(Green 2002:101, African American English)

Montgomery and Mishoe (1999) found bes in the coastal counties they studied in North and South Carolina:

18) a. The baby bes crying all afternoon. He’s fine in the morning, but cranky in the afternoon.

b. Christmas bes the best time to get together. All other times somebody in the family can’t come.

c. Them laws [i.e., highway patrols] don’t bes doing nothing but riding around and drinking coffee.

Clarke (1999:332) reports it in Newfoundland Vernacular English, when the sentence conveys that an event occurs habitually (she spells it bees):

19) a. It bees some cold here in the winter.

b. Usually I talks fast and gets off because I bees embarrassed.

Clarke (1999) points out that Newfoundland Vernacular English generally expresses a habitual event (not in the past) with the suffix -s on a verb stem (e.g. I gets sick when I takes aspirin). She suggests that the -s we see on be in sentences like those in (19) might be the same marker of habitual aspect that we see on other verbs in this variety of English.

Semantic properties

Starting with Labov et al. (1968), Dunlap (1973), and Brewer (1979), and all the way to today (e.g. Harris in progress), linguists have noted that there are cases where be is also used in sentences that are not characterized by a habitual interpretation.

For example, in the following sentences be does not convey that an event happens frequently or habitually, but rather that the speaker strongly believes that the sentence is true:

20) a. So you know it all don’t be on her; it be half on me and half on her.
‘So, you know, it’s not all on her; it’s half on me and half on her.'
(Labov 1998:12)

b. Nah, it ain’t Leo though. They be the real troublemakers. Leo be the one to tell it like it is.
(Baugh 1983)

Alim (2004) provides several such examples taken from lyrics and conversations. The sentences in (21) do not convey that something is usually the case, but rather that X is equal to Y – for example, that this beat really is the beat of the street (21a):

21) a. This beat be the beat for the street.
(Alim 2004:398, lyric from Busta Rhymes)

b. I be the truth.
(Alim 2004:398, lyric from Beane Siegel)

c. Dr. Dre be the name.
(Alim 2004:398, lyric from Dr. Dre)

Harris (in progress) provides naturally occurring examples, like the ones below (the paraphrases provided by Harris have some additional material that helps convey the feeling of emphasis):

21) a. New Haven be lit.
‘New Haven is really a very exciting and happening place to be.’

b. Hey baby, this be Heywood!
‘Hey baby, this is Heywood! Don't you recognize me?’

c. Her Father be your Father
‘Don't you know, her (heavenly) Father is also your Father.’

The question then is whether we have two different bes, each contributing a distinct interpretation, or whether it’s the same element, with two interpretations. For a full discussion of this issue, see Harris (in progress).

Page contributed by Raffaella Zanuttini on June 28, 2017.

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