BE HAPPY: A Grammatical Perspective

Earlier today I was on the treadmill at my gym reading a book (which is what nerds like me do when they actually make the time to work out!). During a fairly benign scene in chapter twenty-seven, two characters in the novel were discussing what they want out of life, and predictably, one of the characters said, “I want to be happy, I suppose.”

Coincidentally, but perhaps not so much, I looked up from my book and out the picture window of the gym that faced a row of homes across the street. Perched in an upstairs window of a house just to the left was a small sign with bold white letters: “BE HAPPY.”

So this got me to thinking. Which can be a dangerous sport.

Notwithstanding the very famous song by Bobby McFerrin, the phrase “Be Happy” has been around for a very long time. In fact, the theme of happiness is one that has been pondered over, written about, lamented upon, and sought after by many people for probably centuries (I don’t really have the research to back this up).

As a lover of all things English (the language, not the people, although they don’t offend me per se), my mind started turning over the phrase: BE HAPPY.

Of course, I know the meaning of the word happy. This fact is not up for debate here. Even so, let’s avoid any misinterpretation by saying that Merriam-Webster defines happy as “enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment.” Ice cream makes me happy. My dog is happy after a long walk. Happy people tend to smile a lot.

You get the picture.

My interest is with the word be. Most scholars proclaim the verb be (and its well-known relatives: am, is, are, was, were, being, been) as either a linking verb or a helping verb. For example, a linking verb connects the words before and after it in a sentence, such as “Ernest Hemingway is a famous author.” The words “famous author” are linked to the subject of the sentence “Ernest Hemingway.” As expected, a helping verb acts as an assistant to the all-important action verb in a sentence, such as “The child is playing in the yard.” The action verb playing is getting the alley-oop from the word is.

Nowhere can I find someone who says that the verb be could be an action word. An action word is one that implies movement. Run. Dance. Sniff. Explode. Fly. These words unquestionably show action. You probably just pictured some of them in your mind’s eye as you read them. In fact, picturing that in your mind is an action, all those intangible thoughts and emotions. Think. Imagine. Love. Fear. You can do all those things.

Most people don’t think of the verb be as an action. But I urge you to try.

Back to Merriam-Webster. The multiple meanings of the word be include the following:

  • “to belong to the class of”    The fish is a trout.
  • “have reality or actuality; live”    I think, therefore I am.
  • “to take place; occur”    The concert was last night.
  • “to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted”    Let it be.
  • “to come or go”    He has never been to the circus.

See?? How can you deny that the word be (along with its other forms) can be an action?!

So why am I going to all this trouble to prove to you that the word be is an action word?

Because “BE HAPPY” is not some passive, feel-good, sentimental, bumper sticker state of mind. You are not supposed to just sit around and wait for it to come to you, like a bug to sticky flypaper. Being happy doesn’t happen to you. It’s not an accident. It’s not an entitlement. And it isn’t even promised.

BE HAPPY is an action. Perhaps it would be better expressed as SEEK HAPPINESS, but that’s not in our vernacular. BE HAPPY is a pursuit, something to go after and hopefully attain. A quest, like that of Don Quixote, who didn’t sit around and wait for his dream. He went after it. On horseback.


It’s a pull-up-your-bootstraps, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns, seize-the-day, go-get-em kind of manifesto.

In simple English, BE HAPPY isn’t something that you are, it’s something that you should do.

7 thoughts on “BE HAPPY: A Grammatical Perspective

  1. Wow! You’re pretty good, Karen! I enjoyed reading this and will look forward to reading what ever else you write! Thanks for sharing your happy spirit!!


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