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1. We lost the bet.
That can't be.
2. Is she the real owner of this place ?
That could be.
3. Will he return home tomorrow ?
That could be.
What is the meaning of "be" in the above sentences ? I think the meaning is something between "to exist" and "to happen". Is such usage acceptable in formal speech ?
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Debpriya DeWhat is the meaning of "be" in the above sentences ?
be in all its forms (like is, are, was, were) is used as a linking verb. Here, the link is to the adjective surprising:

That is surprising. / That may be surprising. / That could be surprising.

If you have a modal verb like will, can, could, may, or might, it has to be followed by the form be, not is, are, or any of the other forms. But you still have a linking verb in any case.

If the adjective is "true", you can sometimes omit it when the subject is that, like this:

That can't be. = That can't be true.
That could be. = That could be true.

However, it only works, as far as I know, with the modals can't, could, couldn't, may, and might, so you see that the pattern is very restricted.

That [can't / could / couldn't / may / might] be. (i.e., be true.)

CJ
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Debpriya De Do they follow the same rule ?
Yes. When you don't have a modal verb (could, may, etc.) you use is instead of be. The modal verb is what forces the use of the bare infinitive be.

That is a pen. / That could be a pen.

Why is that? is like Why is that true? It's a way of asking for an explanation.

CJ
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Comments  
Used more often informally, it simply means: that's possible.
 CalifJim's reply was promoted to an answer.
What about the sentences "Why do you think that is ?" and "Why is that ?" ?

Here we have "is" instead of "be". Do they follow the same rule ?
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 CalifJim's reply was promoted to an answer.
@CJ, I was looking up "be" in an online dictionary and I came across the following entry:
v.intr.
1. To exist in actuality; have life or reality: I think, therefore I am.

Would you say "am" in the above sentence is a linking verb ?
Debpriya DeWould you say "am" in the above sentence is a linking verb ?
No. In rare cases the forms of be have the exact same meaning as "exist".

It was Rene Descartes who said, "I think; therefore, I am", but one day in 1650 he forgot to keep thinking and he died! Emotion: big smile

CJ
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Okay, thanks for your replies. I get it now.
However, it only works, as far as I know, with the modals can't, could, couldn't, may, and might, so you see that the pattern is very restricted.Also with shall and should...
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