be he rich or poor [Why is "whether" omitted?]


Hi, dear friends,

There is sentence in Wuthering Heights " A stranger is a stranger, be he rich or poor: it will not suit me to permit any one the range of the place while I am off guard!"
I can sense that it means whether he is rich or poor, but how come "whether" is omitted and the inversion? Thank you so much.
  • Weiping

    Thank you, JillN. You are right, I sometimes read similar expression in some literary works or movies. That's is something I never found in our textbooks. The trouble is someone has adatpted it for one of our tests. And now I have to analyze and explain the grammar rule behind it to my students.


    Senior Member
    You can tell them, Weiping, that the sentence uses the present subjunctive "be" to indicate a possibility that could also have been expressed with "whether". Beginning the subordinate clause with "be" sounds poetic:
    A stranger is a stranger, whether he be (present subjunctive)/is (present indicative) rich or poor!

    I still sometimes hear and use the present subjunctive after statements of desire or request:
    He requests that we be on time.

    From reading other threads on the subject, I have the impression that the present subjunctive is now used more in the U.S. and maybe Canada than it is in the U.K. or elsewhere.
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    Senior Member
    US, English
    Here's a classic use from "Jack and the Beanstalk" It is a subjunctive but this particular form is not used much these days.

    I smell the blood of an Englishman,
    Be he alive, or be he dead
    I'll grind his bones to make my bread.


    Thank your for your help. In China we have been told that in subjuntive, omission and inversion happen in the following cases:
    1. Should he be free this weekend, he would go to the movie with us.
    2. Were he here, he would help us.
    3. Had he gone to the party, he would had a great time.
    And Owlman5, I like your example:He requests that we be on time.
    I think it is should that is omimitted in the sentence.
    Back to sentences: be he rich or poor; be he alive or be he dead, It's whether that's been omitted. So the omission of whether is something new I have to let my studnets know.


    Senior Member
    I see that you're no stranger to the subjunctive, Weiping. All your examples sound like excellent illustrations of the present and past subjunctives. In your second example, "Were he here, he would help us", I never hear the present subjunctive "be". I think the main reason that we don't use the subjunctive much is that our subjunctive forms aren't clearly marked for function in most verbs.

    Imagine that I knew everything about particle physics. Though it's in the past subjunctive, it looks and sounds just like the simple past. Anyhow, you can now add "whether" to your list of words that can be followed by the subjunctive. :)


    American English
    Keep in mind that the subjunctive is used in English, as it is in the other Indo-European languages that had it or have it, for a variety of purposes.

    "Be he rich or poor" expresses a conditional situation that can be expressed in the indicative mood with conjunctions like "Whether."

    "Were he here" expresses a "contrary to fact" or hypothetical situation. The subjunctive is used even if a conjunction is used also: "If he were here." (Some speakers say "If he was here," replacing the subjunctive with the indicative.)

    "He requests that we be on time" expresses a request or order, a rather different situation than a conditional or a hypothetical statement. (The statement could also be, "He orders/commands that we be on time" or "... asks ...")

    I think that we have numerous threads on the subjunctive, and some on its allegedly more frequent use in AE than in BE.
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