Weekend Word Wrap: Shakespeare, Ebonics and the verb to be revisited

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I'm not sure if you can read the text in the picture below, but it's from a novel I'm presently writing. The sentence I'd like to bring to your attention is the one that reads: The person he was referring to was an acquaintance of mine... etc.

For fun, I had MS Word go through the document and underline what it thought were mistakes. For those of you familiar with this feature, you already know that a green squiggly under a word or phrase means the application has taken issue with your grammar. Clicking on the squiggly opens a window with suggestions on how to fix the problem.

worddoc.jpgSo, in the sentence above, Word suggested, as you see in the box, the word be for was, which would have given me this sentence had I accepted it: The person he was referring to be an acquaintance of mine
I smiled, as hopefully you just did, but then got to thinking about proper uses of the verb to be that sound all wrong to my ears, but actually aren't.
Two came immediately to mind:

1. Though grammarians are still clinging to the proper antiquated use of the subjunctive mode in the was/were debate (what I call "the mode of doubt") (correct: If I were you/incorrect: If I was you), they don't seem to fret much over the loss of the following use of the subjunctive, which I've plucked from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline:

Act I, Scene 6: Iachimo: If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare, she is alone the Arabian bird"¦

Act II, Scene 3:Cloten: If she be up, I'll speak with her...


Curious, ain't it?

2. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), better known as Ebonics, a dialect defined by its own coherent grammar and pronunciation rules, is big on making a distinction between habitual action and currently occurring action. For example, She is blogging and She usually blogs are two different concepts, one expressed by omitting the verb to be and one expressed by including the verb to be, though not in a way the majority of us are accustomed to (at least not yet).

She bloggin' = She is blogging
She be bloggin' = She is usually blogging

It's an important distinction, and one most people who aren't familiar with Ebonics generally don't understand because they simply assume She bloggin' and She be bloggin' mean the exact same thing, when in truth, they really don't.

So there you have two interesting and completely correct uses of the verb "to be," that don't sound correct to many of us, all thanks to the brilliant suggestion of Microsoft Word. Care to share any other funky MS Word suggestions you've come across? Go ahead, make us smile. The interactive part of the Wrap starts now!

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>

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January 3, 2008 - 10:35pm
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