the powers that be

Veraz

Senior Member
Spain Spanish
Hi!

I would like to know why is the subjunctive used in this idiom:

"The powers that BE"

If they are current and actual powers, there is no doubt they are. Or is it because you know that they are, but you don't know or don't know exactly who they are?

Torcuato
 
  • FurryOne

    Senior Member
    United States, English
    This is an idiomatic and rather old-fashioned phrase, meaning "the powers that exist" -- I'm not sure why the subjunctive is used. The phrase appears once in the King James Bible, Romans 13:1-2

    Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

    A similar phrase, in which the reason for the subjunctive is clearer, occurs in the first verse of the poem "Invictus" by William Earnest Henley:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

     

    TropicalMontana

    Senior Member
    American English
    It's an idiomatic phrase, meaning they exist in an unquestionable, natural-order sort of way.

    Perhaps someone else can derive the origin of this for us.
     

    Veraz

    Senior Member
    Spain Spanish
    Thank you for your answers. Good to know it is dated.

    I can understand the use of the subjunctive on the Bible quote: whatever powers exist, they come from God. However, it's less clear to me when this idiom is used to refer to current powers (not whatever powers, but the powers that actually rule in a society), unless one wants to encompass also hidden powers or unknown powers...
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Most expressions using the subjunctive today are frozen, relics of old grammar, and can't be analysed in terms of Present-day English.

    However, another possibility is that it wasn't subjunctive but indicative. In Old and Middle English the verb be had alternative present tense forms beginning be-.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    However, another possibility is that it wasn't subjunctive but indicative. In Old and Middle English the verb be had alternative present tense forms beginning be-.
    Yes, I think that's the more likely explanation....

    Another example from the King James Bible: Matthew 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
     

    nor_light

    Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    Hi!

    I would like to know why is the subjunctive used in this idiom:

    "The powers that BE"

    If they are current and actual powers, there is no doubt they are. Or is it because you know that they are, but you don't know or don't know exactly who they are?

    Torcuato
    Actually the subjunctive is used here as it should be used in English:
    "The subjunctive is used in formal English when we wish to express the importance of something. It usually follows verbs like recommend, insist or suggest, and other words that express these ideas, such as vital, important or essential."
    (www britishcouncil.org/learnenglish-central-grammar-subjunctive.htm)
    So in other words: The powers that should be/The powers that should exist
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    You may be right, nor_light (welcome to the forums, by the way!)

    I'm going to stick to my view that "be" in "powers that be" is an older form of the indicative:D
     
    You may be right, nor_light (welcome to the forums, by the way!)

    I'm going to stick to my view that "be" in "powers that be" is an older form of the indicative:D
    I was going to say that!

    "Be" figures as the indicative often in some BrE regional speech, although a little archaically now. It is used for all persons in conjugating the present indicative of "to be". It is treated almost as a regular verb, except that the third personal singular is the same as all the other persons.

    I be glad to see you
    You be looking mighty unwell
    He be the one that caused it
    We be going on our holidays
    They be taking in their harvest.
    We be bound to honour the powers that be
     

    Veraz

    Senior Member
    Spain Spanish
    To me, it makes much more sense if it is indicative, nor_night. I don't see any suggestion or recommendation there. I didn't know that "be" could be used for indicative forms too. By the way, the versions of this Bible verse in other languages I've checked do use indicative.
     

    Pedro y La Torre

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    I was going to say that!

    "Be" figures as the indicative often in some BrE regional speech, although a little archaically now. It is used for all persons in conjugating the present indicative of "to be". It is treated almost as a regular verb, except that the third personal singular is the same as all the other persons.

    I be glad to see you
    You be looking mighty unwell
    He be the one that caused it
    We be going on our holidays
    They be taking in their harvest.
    We be bound to honour the powers that be
    To expand a little, the "does be" form is popular in certain parts of Ireland.

    "He does be on that phone all day" is one I've heard used a number of times.
     

    LV4-26

    Senior Member
    In this particular case, it seems only natural that be should take on its root form as do is already "in charge of" the inflection.

    It's analog to the emphatic form in standard English. Only,....
    1. it isn't used for the same purpose ("habitualness" vs emphasis)
    2. it applies to a verb (be) that doesn't normally take "do".
     
    To avoid confusing readers who are learning English, I think we should emphasise that all the variants we are giving are not standard modern English and would almost certainly be regarded as wrong if spoken by somebody whose native tongue is not English. Indeed, if native speakers from other regions tried to used them seriously, we would probably be suspected of mocking the "natural" users.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Hi!

    I would like to know why is the subjunctive used in this idiom:

    "The powers that BE"

    If they are current and actual powers, there is no doubt they are. Or is it because you know that they are, but you don't know or don't know exactly who they are?

    Torcuato
    Others have expressed the opinion that be here is in the present indicative, and I agree.

    For want of a better source, let me cite from Google Books Philosophic Grammar of the English Language (1827) by William Samuel Cardell, which on page 161 includes "The powers that be" as an example of indicative be used instead of is.

    Addition: Words to the Wise has this to say of it:

    There was some overlap in usage of be, is, was, are and sind and the use of be for are persisted in some dialects until the 16th century. The phrase the powers that be is an archaic relic of this period.
     
    Last edited:

    redgiant

    Senior Member
    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    In the comment section to an article about a nurse "committed suicide" over a prank call by two Australian shock jocks, a user named trying2help posted this comment (timed 13 hours ago (11:14 PM) on page 2 as I started this thread):

    One wonders really what was said to her by the hospital and the powers that be. Did they really threaten her with job loss etc?? One will never know.

    The user thinks there must have been something beyond a simple prank call that made her so devastated that she resorted to suicide. I'd like to know what "the powers that be" actually refers to, the royal family or the British government? I'm leaning toward the former because the old fashioned sense of the phrase seems to match the royal family with a rich heritage.
     
    In the comment section to an article about a nurse "committed suicide" over a prank call by two Australian shock jocks, a user named trying2help posted this comment (timed 13 hours ago (11:14 PM) on page 2 as I started this thread):

    One wonders really what was said to her by the hospital and the powers that be. Did they really threaten her with job loss etc?? One will never know.

    The user thinks there must have been something beyond a simple prank call that made her so devastated that she resorted to suicide. I'd like to know what "the powers that be" actually refers to, the royal family or the British government? I'm leaning toward the former because the old fashioned sense of the phrase seems to match the royal family with a rich heritage.
    In that context it would have been her employer, the hospital.

    Just thinking this topic through again, it occurs to me that there could be a slightly different meaning from the standard indicative. When people say "The powers that be", they are sometimes being vague, as in "I'm not sure who the powers are here, but whoever they are this is what they have done". So the word "be" in "The powers that be" could be a subjunctive, meaning "The Powers that may be".
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    In post #2 FurryOne gave the probable origin of this expression from the King James Bible. If it isn't off topic, the New Testament Greek translates literally as "the existing authorities". I don't see any justification for regarding the biblical expression as a subjunctive. The meaning may have changed since then, but I see it as expressing resignation towards "powerful people and institutions which govern us both openly and behind the scenes".
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    In this situation, it is unclear. The BBC have been very strongly avoiding saying 'suicide', for some reason, though other news sources are all clear about it. This is a situation where people are deliberately choosing to be unclear: they don't want to say. So we have no idea what sort of interaction there has been between the hospital bosses and the Government and so on, and that commenter who said that has no idea either, so is resorting to a very vague phrase.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    "The powers that be" in AE is simply a fixed expression meaning "those in charge". I'm quite sure that in this instance no member of the royal family scolded the nurse for letting the call through and that "the powers that be" here refers to the chief executives of the hospital. (I am, by the way, quite puzzled by this whole incident, as she was apparently NOT the nurse who passed on the confidential information but only the one who picked up the phone and then handed it to someone else.)
     
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