A Brief History of the Verb To Be

A Brief History of the Verb To Be

By Andrea Moro

Translated by Bonnie McClellan-Broussard

A journey through linguistic time and space, from Aristotle through the twentieth century's “era of syntax,” in search of a dangerous verb and its significance.





A journey through linguistic time and space, from Aristotle through the twentieth century's “era of syntax,” in search of a dangerous verb and its significance.

Beginning with the early works of Aristotle, the interpretation of the verb to be runs through Western linguistic thought like Ariadne's thread. As it unravels, it becomes intertwined with philosophy, metaphysics, logic, and even with mathematics—so much so that Bertrand Russell showed no hesitation in proclaiming that the verb to be was a disgrace to the human race.

With the conviction that this verb penetrates modern linguistic thinking, creating scandal in its wake and, like a Trojan horse of linguistics, introducing disruptive elements that lead us to rethink radically the most basic structure of human language—the sentence—Andrea Moro reconstructs this history. From classical Greece to the dueling masters of medieval logic through the revolutionary geniuses from the seventeenth century to the Enlightenment, and finally to the twentieth century—when linguistics became a driving force and model for neuroscience—the plot unfolds like a detective story, culminating in the discovery of a formula that solves the problem even as it raises new questions—about language, evolution, and the nature and structure of the human mind. While Moro never resorts to easy shortcuts, A Brief History of the Verb To Be isn't burdened with inaccessible formulas and always refers to the broader picture of mind and language. In this way it serves as an engaging introduction to a new field of cutting-edge research.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262037129 304 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 3 b&w illus.


Bonnie McClellan-Broussard.


  • A Brief History of the Verb o Be is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the syntax of copular sentences. But Moro's book has merits that go beyond that....A particular merit of Moro's book, and possibly its greatest achievement, is that it encourages readers to ask their own questions at almost every turn of the argument.

    Journal of Linguistics


  • This quest for the Holy Grail—the nature of the simple verb to be—is a remarkable tour de force. Learned and lucid, with fascinating byways to challenging problems of philosophy, linguistic theory, and the brain sciences, the journey proceeds from classical Greece to the present, finally unveiling an elegant unified theory with rich and surprising implications for the understanding of fundamental aspects of language. A major contribution, and a joy to read.

    Noam Chomsky

  • Andrea Moro has given us, with fascinating historical and philosophical background, a powerful and sustained argument in favor of the unicity of To Be.

    Richard S. Kayne

    Silver Professor, Department of Linguistics, NYU; author of The Antisymmetry of Syntax

  • The distinguished linguist Andrea Moro has devoted his life to the study of the verb to be. In this wonderful book, he explains the importance and interest of this topic to the nonspecialist with his characteristic style, skill, and learning. It is a gripping read, the best popular book on language I have read since Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. I recommend it to anyone interested in human language, or indeed, in human civilization in general.

    Tim Crane

    Professor of Philosophy, Central European University