photo-of-blackboard-with-the-words-to-be-on-it-surrounded-by-the-to-be-verbs

“To Be” Verbs in English

Did you know that the verb  to be is the most frequently used English verb?

That’s probably not surprising, since—as you’re about to see—it’s very  versatile (flexible, can be used in many situations).

There’s just one problem: to be is also the most irregular verb in English.

Throughout this post, you’ll get a chance to learn all the different English to be verb forms. You’ll also learn how to use is, am, are and similar verbs, see some special uses of this verb and several expressions that include it.

Contents

Common Forms of “To Be” Verbs

The Basic Forms of “To Be” Verbs

To be is the most irregular verb in the English language. Its most basic forms include the infinitive be am is , are , was , were being and been .

Here’s a quick rundown of them:

Basic Forms of "To Be" VerbsUsesExamples
be - Infinitive form
- Refers to the verb in general
- Used with certain compound tenses
The verb to be is very important.
am
is
are
- Present tense forms of "to be"
- "am" is used for the first person singular
- "is" is used for the third person singular
- "are" is used for the first person plural, second person singular and plural and third person plural
I am
he is
she is
it is
we are
you are
they are
was
were
- Past tense forms of "to be"
- "Was" is used for the first and third person singular
- "Were" is used for the first person plural, the second person singular and plural and the third person plural
I was
he was
she was
it was
we were
you were
they were
being - Present participle of the verb "to be"
- Used in continuous tenses
- Used as a subject in sentences
I am being
she was being
Being a polyglot is a great asset.
been - Past participle of "to be"
- Used in perfect tenses ( has / have + past participle)
I have been studying English for 10 years.

In case you’re wondering whether to be has always been irregular, check out the video below. (Spoiler: It’s been that way for centuries!)

Present Simple

The present simple of the verb to be looks like this:

Subject PronounPresent Tense of "To Be"
I am
You / We / They are
He / She / It is

Use the present simple of the verb to be for:

Uses of the Present Simple "To Be"Example Sentences
Describing identity or characteristics I am a teacher.
She is intelligent.
Expressing nationality or origin He is Japanese.
We are from Canada.
Talking about occupations She is a doctor.
They are engineers.
Indicating possession The book is mine.
Those are your keys.
Talking about relationships He is my brother.
She is my friend.
Describing physical or emotional states I am tired.
The weather is cold.
Talking about general truths or facts The sun rises in the east.
Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
Talking about habits or routines I am usually at work by 9 AM.
They are always late.

Present Continuous

The present continuous of the verb to be is formed by just adding  being to the present simple:

Subject PronounPresent Continuous of "To Be"
I am being
You / We / They are being
He / She / It is being

The present continuous is used to:

Uses of the Present Continuous "To Be"Example Sentences
Talk about actions happening or ongoing now I am writing a letter.
She is studying for her exams.
Talk about actions that are happening but will stop at some point I am staying with a friend until I find a place to live.
He is working on a project this week.
Talk about future arrangements We are meeting for lunch tomorrow.
She is flying to Paris next week.

The Past Simple

The past simple of to be is very simple. There are only two of them:

Subject PronounPast Simple of "To Be"
I / He / She / It was
You / We / They were

Use the past simple of to be to:

Uses of the Past Simple "To Be"Example Sentences
Tell your or someone else's age in the past I was five when I started learning English.
He was 25 when the accident happened.
Talk about deceased individuals or groups that no longer exist Elvis Presley was a legendary musician.
The Beatles were a groundbreaking band.
Describe past events, people, objects or places in the past It was a very beautiful morning.
He was angry at his father.
The houses were huge.
Talk about past professions She was a nurse before she became a social worker.
My grandpa was an architect.
Tell where someone or something was in the past He was in the park all morning.
I was home when she called.
Talk about nationalities in the past Grandma was Irish.
The best wine I drank was from France.

Past Continuous

The past continuous of to be is formed by adding being to the past simple of the verb:

Subject PronounPast Continuous of "To Be"
I / He / She / It was being
You / We / They were being

Use to be in the past continuous tense when you want to:

Uses of the Past Continuous "To Be"Example Sentences
Talk about actions in progress in the past She was reading a book when the earthquake occurred.
They were playing basketball when it started raining.
Talk about two or more actions that happened at the same time He was watching TV while she was cooking dinner.
I was studying while my brother was playing video games.
Talk about temporary actions We were living in a small apartment while our house was being renovated.
He was staying with us for a week during his business trip.

Present Perfect

The present perfect of to be uses  to have and the past participle been :

Subject PronounPresent Perfect of "To Be"
I / You / We / They have been
He / She / It has been

We use this tense when we need to:

Uses of the Present Perfect "To Be"Example Sentences
Talk about completed actions with a present result She has been a teacher for 15 years.
They have been married since 2010.
Talk about an unspecified time in the past with a present result He has been to Japan.
We have been to that museum before.
Talk about experiences in life up to the present I have been to a live concert.
She has been to five different countries.
Talk about changes or developments over a period leading up to the present The city has been growing rapidly over the last decade.
Our team has been quite successful this season.
Talk about multiple occurrences of a state or condition over time He has been happy since he started his new job.
The children have been excited about the upcoming trip.

Past Perfect

The past perfect of to be is super simple. It uses  had been in every person, whether singular or plural.

Use this tense when you want to:

Uses of the Past Perfect "To Be"Example Sentences
Talk about situations and events that happened before other past events I had been a teacher for 20 years when I retired.
He had been there for three hours before his girlfriend arrived.
Describe people, objects and places in the past It had been a very beautiful place in the past, but the house looked completely abandoned.
The old man had been really busy all morning. When his family arrived, he was already tired.
Say that something had not happened before but now it has I had never been to London before.
(This means you are in London at the moment or you just came back from there.)
John had never been in love until he met Silvia.  
(This means he actually fell in love with Silvia when they met, but was never in love before that.)

Let’s compare that last use of the past perfect with the present perfect:

Present PerfectPast Perfect
I have never been to Puerto Rico.
(Still, to this day, I have not traveled there.)
I had never been to Puerto Rico before.
(The speaker has now been to Puerto Rico.)
Mary has never been married.
(She is not married.)
Mary had never been married before.  
(She is now married for the first time.)

If the present perfect is used to say that you haven’t been to a place or something hasn’t happened yet, the past perfect is not necessarily a past-before-past event or description. This tense just tells us that the present perfect sentence is no longer true. The situation has changed, and we have now been to that place or the situation is now real.

Future Simple

The future simple of to be is another very easy tense to learn because it uses  will be in every person, no matter if it’s singular or plural.

We use the future simple to:

Uses of the Future Simple "To Be"Example Sentences
Talk about age and professions in the future He will be 18 next month.
I will be a firefighter when I grow up.
Predict how something or someone will look or feel in the future It will be the tallest building in the city when it is finished.
He will be very happy there.
Say someone will be somewhere in the future I will be at school at eight.
She will be home soon.

Negative Forms of “To Be”

To form negative statements for to be verbs, all you have to do is add the word not . If you’re dealing with the past and present simple tenses, just pop it at the end of the to be verb. For the future simple, put it between “will” and “be.”

Present SimplePast SimpleFuture Simple
I am not a student. I was not there yesterday. I will not be here tomorrow.
You are not from Poland. You were not very nice to Martha. You will not be happy there.
She is not from Argentina. He was not Polish.
She was not Polish.
It was not Polish.
He will not be in London by Monday.
She will not be be in London by Monday.
It will not be be in London by Monday.
We are not friends. We were not students at the time. We will not be at the cinema by then.
They are not doctors. They were not so tall last year. They will not be surprised.

If you’re dealing with the continuous/progressive and perfect tenses, write “not” between the to be verb and “being” or “been.”

Present ContinuousPast Continuous
I am not being silly. I was not being rude.
You are not being yourself! You were not being yourself.
He is not being naughty.
She is not being naughty.
It is not being naughty.
He was not being helpful.
She was not being helpful.
It was not being helpful.
We are not being the best siblings. We were not being nice to her.
They are not being nice. They were not being themselves.
Present PerfectPast Perfect
I have not been completely honest with you. I had not been there before.
You have not been to Spain yet. You had not been fat before you met him.
He has not been happy ever since.
She has not been happy ever since.
It has not been happy ever since.
He had not been so naughty until we moved last year.
She had not been so naughty until we moved last year.
It had not been so naughty until we moved last year.
We have not been there this year. We had not been to Montevideo before.
They have not been to an airport before. They had not been there for long when Carlo showed up.

By the way, it’s perfectly acceptable to shorten both negative and affirmative/positive statements (i.e., statements that don’t use “not”) using contractions. For more on those, read this post:

Question Forms of “To Be”

To create questions based on to be verbs, just switch the subject and the to be verb. This applies to the present simple and past simple tenses. For the future simple, put the subject between “will” and “be.”

Present SimplePast SimpleFuture Simple
Am I really so annoying? Was I in the right place? Will I be here tomorrow?
Are you from Venezuela? Were you happy? Will you be happy there?
Is he old?
Is she old?
Is it old?
Was he from Peru?
Was she from Peru?
Was it from Peru?
Will he be in London by Monday?
Will she be in London by Monday?
Will it be in London by Monday?
Are we happy? Were we together back then? Will we be at the cinema by then?
Are they firefighters? Were they nice? Will they be surprised?

If you’re dealing with the continuous/progressive and perfect tenses, do the abovementioned switch, but keep “being” or “been” in the same position.

Present ContinuousPast Continuous
Am I being reasonable here? Was I being rude?
Are you being silly again? Were you being yourself?
Is he being nice enough?
Is she being nice enough?
Is it being nice enough?
Was he being helpful?
Was she being helpful?
Was it being helpful?
Are we being considerate? Were we being nice to her?
Are they being their best selves? Were they being themselves?
Present PerfectPast Perfect
Have I been completely honest? Had I been there before?
Have you been to Spain? Had you been fat before you met him?
Has he been okay since the accident?
Has she been okay since the accident?
Has it been okay since the accident?
Had he been naughty before we moved last year?
Had she been naughty before we moved last year?
Had it been naughty before we moved last year?
Have we been there? Had we been to Montevideo before?
Have they been to an airport before? Had they been there for long before Carlo showed up?

Special Forms of “To Be”: Beyond the Tenses

You now know the main to be tenses and how they are used. But there’s so much more to learn about this verb!

The following “specials” are situations in which the verb to be is used in specific ways.

Stative vs. Dynamic Forms

The verb to be is not seen in its continuous form (-ing ending) very often. When it is seen, it gets some very specific meanings.

Let’s take this sentence:

Anna is very helpful.

We have a sentence in the present simple, which means we are describing Anna. She is always helpful, and that is her nature. This is what we call a stative form of the verb to be.

Now have a look at the same sentence, but in the present continuous:

Anna is being very helpful.

All of a sudden, Anna is not a helpful person all the time, just this time. Today she is helping, but she normally doesn’t. This is the dynamic form of the verb.

We can also use the distinction between stative/dynamic forms when we want to complain about someone or something:

Example SentenceType of VerbExplanation
Peter talks too much. StativeThis is a description or a statement.
Peter is talking too much. DynamicThis is a complaint. He is being too talkative today.

Question Tags

Question tags are little “tails” added at the end of a sentence. They have the form of a question, and are normally used when we’re looking for another person to give their opinion or agree with us.

If the main verb of a sentence is to be, the question tag will also include a form of this verb:

You are very happy here, aren’t you?

She isn’t pregnant, is she?

They were being silly, weren’t they?

“To Be” and Adverbs: Word Order

Simply put, adverbs are words that  modify (change) adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. They give information about place, time, manner and cause, among others.

As a rule, remember to add adverbs after the verb to be:

I am always happy.

She is never tired.

The house is still on sale.

Our neighbor is seldom home.

However, if there’s a participle in the sentence (being or been), you should add the adverb between the conjugated verb and the participle:

Mary has always been happy here.

They have never been here.

She is still being naughty!

Modal Verbs and the Passive Voice

This post doesn’t cover modal verbs in detail, but it’s worth mentioning that the verb to be can be added between a modal verb and the past participle of a verb:

These walls should be painted already.

It can’t be found anywhere.

In fact, sentences that include “a modal verb + be + a past participle” are passive sentences. Here are two more examples of the passive voice with be:

He should be punished.

John may be injured.

However, passive sentences don’t always need to include a modal verb, only the appropriate form of the verb to be:

He was being carried.

The house has been sold.

We were told not to talk too much.

The Imperative: “To Be” Commands

You may already know that we use the imperative mainly for commands and instructions.

What you may not know yet is that we can also use the verb to be for this. Have a look at some examples:

Be quiet! / Don’t be so noisy!

Be humble! / Don’t be so arrogant!

Be my girlfriend, please.

Don’t be silly!

If you want to learn more about giving commands in English, you can check out this video: 

Expressions That Use “To Be”

We’ve learned a lot about the verb to be so far, but this post wouldn’t be complete without a list of expressions that use the verb to be.

Here are the most important/common ones:

Expressions That Use "To Be"Meaning/UseExample Sentence
To be + to Use this formal construction when you want to say that someone has to do something in the near future. It can be equivalent to have to/must. I am to finish the report by Monday.
To be + able to This construction simply means "can." We use it when the verb forms can and could cannot be used. This often happens when we need to write a sentence with can in a tense other than the present simple or the past simple. I have been able to finish on time. (We cannot say I have canned to finish on time.)
To be + due to This is used when we want to say that something is going to happen because it was planned. This is mainly used when we talk about schedules and timetables. The plane is due to land at 7:30 p.m.
To be + about to Use this construction when you want to say that something is very close to happening or someone is going to do something very, very soon. I am about to go to the grocery store. Do you need anything?
To be + likely to This means that it is possible that something will happen in the future. It is likely to rain tomorrow.
To be + meant to Use this construction when you want to say that someone has to do something. He is meant to be back by 10 p.m.
To be + supposed to This is used when we need to say that someone should do something or something should happen. It is supposed to rain tomorrow.
To be + descriptive adjectivesUse to be + a descriptive adjective to describe people, animals, places, etc. She is very intelligent.
To be + late to
To be + late for
This construction means that someone did not, does not or will not arrive on time somewhere. I was late for the Spanish masterclass.
To be + sorry This is to indicate that someone is or is not sorry. She is never sorry.
To be + mistaken This simply means to be wrong. She heard the class was at 10, but she may be mistaken.
To be + for When you are for something or someone, you are giving that thing or person your support. I am for peaceful protesting.
To be + against When you are against something or someone, you are not giving that thing or person your support. I am against discrimination of any kind.
To be + right If someone is right, they are correct in what they are thinking. Yes, you are right. We need to go back on foot.
To be + wrong If someone is wrong, they are not correct in what they are thinking. She was wrong all this time.

Don’t forget to reinforce your learning by listening to native English speakers on websites like YouTube or FluentU.

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Now, you have all the information you need to use is, am, are and other to be verbs like a native speaker of English.

When studying this verb, follow the order in which the content of this post is presented. It gets more and more difficult as you go, but it has been divided into chunks (smaller parts) to make your study a little bit less stressful.

To be, or not to be. That is the question.

And the answer is both!

Stay curious, my friends. As always, happy learning!

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