Hi, Leonard-Jones,

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, "happen" meansto do, encounter, or attain something by or as if by chance happen to know the answer.

This verb is used to say something unexpected or unforeseen. Imagine this conversation:

A: Nobody knows the answer.
B: Well, I happen to know the answer. (As a matter of fact / Believe it or not, I know it).

In a sentence like the one you proposed, where the subject is inanimate, "happen" is used to introduce an idea the others were not aware of. Instead of just asserting:

- Groundwater is a big source of our own drinking water today.

saying:

- Groundwater happens to be a big source of our own drinking water today.

is useful to introduce a concept your interlocutors might be surprised to learn.

Gustavo, Contributor posted:
In a sentence like the one you proposed, where the subject is inanimate, "happen" is used to introduce an idea the others were not aware of. Instead of just asserting:

- Groundwater is a big source of our own drinking water today.

saying:

- Groundwater happens to be a big source of our own drinking water today.

is useful to introduce a concept your interlocutors might be surprised to learn.

Excellent characterization, Gustavo. I'd like to add that "happen" is not a semantically rich verb in this usage. It simply shades presentation of the assertion ("Groundwater is a big source of our own drinking water today") as a fact that might surprise the hearer.

"Happen" is a so-called raising verb in this usage. Other raising verbs, which are likewise semantically un-rich and perform similar shading functions, include "seem" ("Groundwater seems to be a big source of our own drinking water today") and "continue" ("Groundwater continues to be a big source . . . etc.").

In such sentences, "groundwater" (the subject) is not doing anything, and it is not even the deep subject of "happen" (or "seem," "continue," etc.). Rather, "groundwater" is the deep subject of "be." In this usage, "happen," along with other raising verbs, can even take a dummy subject ("it" or "there"):

  • It just so happens that groundwater is a big source of our own drinking water today.
  • There happens to be a lot of groundwater here.

Here is the OED's definition of "happen" in the relevant sense:

Quote:

2b. With infinitive: used with varying degrees of intensity to support or imply an assertion. Also with non-referential it as subject, and sometimes followed by a subordinate clause (cf. it so happens at sense 1a).

1705   C. Cibber Careless Husband ii. 18   If she were a Woman of the Town, perhaps I shou'd think so too: But she happens to be my Wife.
1784   London Mag. Sept. 206/2   I have too little of the modern critic in me, to condemn any private work because I happen to dislike the name, person, or country of the author.
1866   Daily Tel. 5 Jan. 5/2   Trawling, shrimping, trammelling..methods deprecated by those who don't happen to practise them.
1933   F. Baldwin Innocent Bystander (1935) v. 95   She happens to be my only sister's child and I have an interest in her.
1936   P. G. Wodehouse Laughing Gas xii. 119   It so happens that in the matter of pyjamas I've always been a trifle on the choosy side.
1956   N. Coward South Sea Bubble ii. i   Ch. You have got it in for her, haven't you? C. Certainly not. I just don't happen to like the way she goes on.
1957   B. Evans & C. Evans Dict. Contemp. Amer. Usage 217/1   It happens we like her.
2008   Vanity Fair Oct. 194/2   That doesn't apply to me, since I don't happen to have a wall-size plasma screen.

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