Verb "To Be" in English

by Craig Shrives

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How to Use "To Be" in English

The verb "to be" is the most common verb in English. It has 8 different forms:
  • be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been
This graphic shows how the different forms are used. (Notice that there are short forms too.)
the verb to be in English
"To be" is a special verb because it can be used as a main verb or an auxiliary verb. As a main verb, it means "exist," "occur," or "happen." As an auxiliary verb (or helping verb), the meaning comes from the verb it is helping. Look at these examples:

"To be" as a main verb:

  • I am here. correct tick
  • (I "exist" here.)
  • The meeting was in London. correct tick
  • (The meeting "happened" in London.)

"To be" as an auxiliary verb:

  • I am working at home. correct tick
  • (Here, "to be" is an auxiliary verb helping the verb "to work.")
  • Tom was painting the fence yesterday. correct tick
  • (Here, "to be" is an auxiliary verb helping the verb "to paint.")
When used as an auxiliary verb, "to be" helps to show the tense of the verb it is helping.

"Am," "is," and "are" are used to show the present progressive tense.

For example:
  • Tom is cleaning the car.
"Was" and "were" are used to show the past progressive tense.

For example:
  • Tom and Alice were cleaning the car.

The Different Forms of "To Be"

  • "Be" is the base form.
  • "Am," "Is," and "Are" are the present tense forms.
  • I am happy.We are happy.
    You are happy.You are happy.
    He/she/it is happy.They are happy.
  • "Was" and "Were" are the past tense forms.
  • I was sad.We were sad.
    You were sad.You were sad.
    He/she/it was sad.They were sad.
  • "Being" is the present participle.
  • As a present participle, "being" is mostly used as an auxiliary verb.
    • The cows are being milked.
    • (Here, the meaning comes from the verb "to milk." The verbs "are" and "being" are both auxiliary verbs.)
    When "being" is not an auxiliary verb, it has a meaning like "existing in a state of."
    • You are being silly.
    • (Notice that "to be" is both the auxiliary verb ("are") and the main verb ("being") in this example.)
  • "Been" is the past participle.
  • As a past participle, "being" is mostly used as an auxiliary verb.
    • The cows have been milked.
    • (As before, the meaning comes from the verb "to milk." The verbs "have" and "been" are both auxiliary verbs.)
    When "been" is not an auxiliary verb, it has a meaning like "existed in a state of."
    • You have been naughty.
    • (Here, "have" is an auxiliary verb helping "been.")

Negative Forms of "To Be"

The negative forms of "to be" are made by adding "not."
  • Here are the present tense forms:
  • I am not happy.We are not happy.
    You are not happy.You are not happy.
    He/she/it is not happy.They are not happy.
  • Here are the past tense forms:
  • I was not sad.We were not sad.
    You were not sad.You were not sad.
    He/she/it was not sad.They were not sad.
As shown in this graphic, with the exception of "am not" and the future tense, all of these negative forms have at least one short version. Some have two short versions.
the verb to be in English negative form
The short forms are called contractions.

Using the Different Forms of "To Be"

Here are the most common uses for the 8 different forms of "to be":

"Be" has three common uses:

(1) "Be" is used after "will" to form the simple future tense.
  • She will be rich soon.
(2) "Be" is used to give an order.
  • Be quiet.
  • (The form used to give an order is called the imperative form. In English, the imperative form is the same as the base form.)
(3) "Be" is used after a modal verb (can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would).
  • You might be correct.

"Am," "Is," "Are" have two common uses:

(1) As main verbs, they are often used to link something to a description.
  • I am happy.
  • He is a policeman.
  • We are on the bus.
  • (Used like this, the verb "to be" is called a linking verb.)
"Is" and "are" are used in a similar way in two very common constructions that start with "it" or "there."
  • It is cold.
  • There is one reason.
  • There are two reasons.
(2) As auxiliary verbs, "am," "is," and "are" are used to form the present progressive tense.
  • I am painting the fence.
  • He is painting the fence.
  • We are painting the fence.

"Was" and "Were" have two common uses:

(1) As main verbs, they are often used to link something to a description.
  • I was happy.
  • He was a policeman.
  • We were on the bus.
  • (Just as before, the verb "to be" is a linking verb. This time though, they are in the past tense.)
"Was" and "were" are also used in those two constructions starting "it" or "there."
  • It was cold.
  • There was one reason.
  • There were two reasons.
(2) As auxiliary verbs, "was" and "were" are used to form the past progressive tense.
  • She was painting the fence.
  • They were painting the fence.

"Being" has two main uses:

(1) As the main verb in a sentence, "being" has a meaning like "existing in the state of."
  • Sarah is being annoying.
  • (In this example, the verb "to be" appears twice. Once as an auxiliary verb ("is") and once as a main verb ("being"). The verb phrase "is being" is an example of the present progressive tense.)
  • You were being silly.
  • (As before, the verb "to be" appears twice. Once as an auxiliary verb ("were") and once as a main verb ("being"). The verb phrase "were being" is an example of the past progressive tense.)
(2) As a present participle, "being" is used as an auxiliary verb in a passive sentence.
  • Tom is being promoted this afternoon.
  • (In a passive sentence, the action of the verb is done to the subject. So, the action of the verb "to promote" is happening to the subject "Tom.")
  • The cows were being milked.
  • (This is another passive sentence. The action of the verb "to milk" happened to the subject "cows.")

"Been" has two common uses:

(1) As the main verb in a sentence, "been" has a meaning like "existed in the state of."
  • We have been happy.
  • (In this example, "have" is an auxiliary verb.)
(2) As a past participle, "been" is used as an auxiliary verb in a passive sentence.
  • Tom has been promoted.
  • The cows have been milked already.
  • (Notice that "been" is helped by the auxiliary verb "to have," while "being" is helped by the auxiliary verb "to be.")

The Eight Forms of "To Be"

Here are the 8 different forms of "to be" with their official descriptions. (Note that normal verbs in English have only 5 forms.)
FormbeAlternative Name
Base FormbeInfinitive Form
Present Tense Formsam, is, are[no alternative name]
Past Formswas, wereSimple Past Tense
The -ING FormbeingPresent Participle Form
The Past Participle Formbeen[no alternative name]

The Five Forms of Normal Verbs

This table shows the 5 forms of a normal verb ("to know").
FormknowAlternative Name
Base FormknowInfinitive Form
The -S FormknowsThird Person Singular Form
Past FormknewSimple Past Tense
The -ING FormknowingPresent Participle Form
The Past Participle Formknown[no alternative name]

More about "To Be"

The verb "be" is an irregular verb. (This means that "be" does not form its simple past tense or its past participle by adding "-ed" or "-d" to the base form.)

Conjugating "To Be" Fully

The tables below show how "be" conjugates in all 12 of the past, present, and future tenses. Bear in mind that "to be" is used as both the auxiliary verb and the main verb in these conjugation tables.

Past Tenses

PersonSimple PastPast Progressive TensePast Perfect TensePast Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • was
  • were
  • was
  • were
  • were
  • were
The simple past tense is for a completed activity that happened in the past.
  • was being
  • were being
  • was being
  • were being
  • were being
  • were being
The past progressive tense is for an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action.
  • had been
  • had been
  • had been
  • had been
  • had been
  • had been
The past perfect tense is for emphasizing that an action was completed before another took place.
  • had been being
  • had been being
  • had been being
  • had been being
  • had been being
  • had been being
The past perfect progressive tense is for showing that an ongoing action in the past has ended.

Present Tenses

PersonSimple PresentPresent Progressive TensePresent Perfect TensePresent Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • am
  • are
  • is
  • are
  • are
  • are
The simple present tense is mostly for a fact or a habit.
  • am being
  • are being
  • is being
  • are being
  • are being
  • are being
The present progressive tense is for an ongoing action in the present.
  • have been
  • have been
  • has been
  • have been
  • have been
  • have been
The present perfect tense is for an action that began in the past. (Often, the action continues into the present.)
  • have been being
  • have been being
  • has been being
  • have been being
  • have been being
  • have been being
The present perfect progressive tense is for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present (or finished very recently).

Future Tenses

PersonSimple FutureFuture Progressive TenseFuture Perfect TenseFuture Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • will be
  • will be
  • will be
  • will be
  • will be
  • will be
The simple future tense is for an action that will occur in the future.
  • will be being
  • will be being
  • will be being
  • will be being
  • will be being
  • will be being
The future progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will occur in the future.
  • will have been
  • will have been
  • will have been
  • will have been
  • will have been
  • will have been
The future perfect tense is for an action that will have been completed at some point in the future.
  • will have been being
  • will have been being
  • will have been being
  • will have been being
  • will have been being
  • will have been being
The future perfect progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future.

Most Common Irregular Verbs

The two most common irregular verbs in English are "be" and have.

Here are the next 10 most common irregular verbs in English:

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See Also

How to improve your spelling The most commonly misspelled words in English Top 10 spelling rules in English Parts of Speech Lists 200 Important Irregular Verbs Role-Play Scenarios for English Learners

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