English “To Be” Verbs: Full Guide to Mastering the Irregular Verb
Did you know that the verb to be is the most frequently used English verb?
This should not be a surprise. After all, thanks to this verb we can do so many important things in English!
There’s just one problem: to be is also the most irregular verb in English.
Throughout this post, you will get a chance to learn all the different English to be verb forms and how to use them. You will also see some special uses of this verb and several expressions that include it.
- Introducing To Be: The Basics
- Present Simple: All About Places, People and Things
- Present Continuous: Behaving Improperly
- The Past Simple: How Things Were Before
- Past Continuous: Out of the Ordinary in the Past
- Present Perfect: Started in the Past Now We’re Here
- Past Perfect: Started in the Past and Stayed There
- Future Simple: Things That Will Happen
- Special forms of To Be: Beyond the Tenses
- Expressions That Use To Be
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Introducing To Be: The Basics
To be is the most irregular verb in the English language.
To be has remained irregular for centuries (thank you, Old English!).
To be has a total of eight different “personalities.” Depending on the position of this verb in the sentence, the person we are referring to or the time the action takes place, you will have to use one or another:
- Be — Use be when we refer to the verb in general (as in “the verb to be is very important”) and with certain compound tenses (you will learn about this later in the post).
- Am/Is/Are — As you will see in the next section, these are the three present tense forms of to be. Am is for the first person singular (I am), is is for the third person singular (he is, she is, it is) and are is for the first person plural (we are), the second person singular and plural (you are) and the third person plural (they are).
- Was/Were — These two verb forms are used for the past tense. Was is used for the first and the third person singular (I was, he was, she was, it was), while were is for the first person plural (we were), the second person singular and plural (you were) and the third person plural (they were).
- Being — Being is the present participle of the verb to be. You will mainly see it in continuous tenses (I am being, she was being) and as a subject in sentences (“Being a polyglot is a great asset.”).
- Been — Been is the past participle of this verb. It is used in perfect tenses.
The next few sections will introduce each form of to be and tell you when and how to use them properly.
Present Simple: All About Places, People and Things
The present simple of the verb to be looks like this:
Use the present simple of the verb to be when you want to:
1. Tell your or someone else’s age.
I am 27.
She is 15 and her brother is 17.
2. Talk about nationalities.
I am Spanish.
We are from Mexico.
3. Talk about professions and occupations.
My sister is a nurse.
Both my neighbors are dentists.
4. Describe people, things or places.
The house is very big.
You are tall and thin.
5. Say where you or someone else is.
I am home.
She is at school.
I always tell my students that the verb to be is quite egotistical. It likes to do everything by itself.
This means that in order to build negative sentences in the present simple, you only have to add not after the verb forms:
I am not a student.
You are not (aren’t) from Poland.
She is not (isn’t) from Argentina.
We are not (aren’t) ready.
You are not (aren’t) my parents.
They are not (aren’t) doctors.
If you want to make questions, just use inversion (swap the person and the verb form):
Am I really so annoying?
Are you from Venezuela?
Is he/she/it old?
Are we happy?
Are you part of the team?
Are they firefighters?
Present Continuous: Behaving Improperly
The present continuous of the verb to be is formed by just adding being to the present simple:
This tense is not used as often as the present simple because to be is not very happy in continuous tenses, but its use is quite important. Use it when you need to:
1. Say that someone’s behavior is not normal for them or that someone is not behaving properly.
You are being so rude today!
We are being very demanding because you failed the last test.
When it comes to negation and questions, to be behaves like in the present simple.
For negative sentences, it just adds not:
I am not being silly.
You are not (aren’t) being yourself!
He/She/It is not (isn’t) being naughty.
We are not (aren’t) being the best siblings.
You are not (aren’t) being helpful.
They are not (aren’t) being nice at all.
For questions, just use the inversion:
Am I being reasonable here?
Are you being silly again?
Is he/she/it being nice enough?
Are we being considerate?
Are you being naughty kids?
Are they being their best selves?
The Past Simple: How Things Were Before
The past simple of to be is very simple:
Use the past simple of to be to:
1. Tell your or someone else’s age in the past.
This means you will be referring to a past situation or maybe a deceased person:
I was five when I started learning English.
He was 25 when the accident happened.
2. Describe past events and people, objects or places in the past.
It was a very beautiful morning.
He was angry at his father.
The houses were huge.
3. Talk about past professions.
She was a nurse before she became a social worker.
My grandpa was an architect.
4. Tell where someone or something was in the past.
He was in the park all morning.
I was home when she called.
5. Talk about nationalities in the past.
Grandma was Irish.
The best wine I drank was from France.
In order to make negative sentences, just add not:
I was not (wasn’t) there yesterday.
You were not (weren’t) very nice to Martha.
He/She/It was not (wasn’t) Polish.
We were not (weren’t) students at the time.
You were not (weren’t) in time for the party.
They were not (weren’t) so tall last year.
For questions, use inversion as usual:
Was I in the right place?
Were you happy?
Was he/she/it from Peru?
Were we together back then?
Were you home last night?
Were they nice or naughty?
Past Continuous: Out of the Ordinary in the Past
The past continuous of to be is formed by adding being to the past simple of the verb:
As with the present continuous, it is not very commonly used. Use it when you want to:
1. Say someone had an abnormal, out-of-the-ordinary or bothersome behavior in the past.
I was just being silly.
They were being impolite. That’s the truth.
Negation is, once again, formed by adding not:
I was not (wasn’t) being rude.
You were not (weren’t) being yourself.
He/She/It was not (wasn’t) being helpful.
We were not (weren’t) being nice to her.
You were not (weren’t) being the best neighbors.
They were not (weren’t) being themselves.
For questions, use inversion:
Was I being rude?
Were you being yourself?
Was he/she/it being helpful?
Were we being nice to her?
Were you being good neighbors?
Were they being themselves?
Present Perfect: Started in the Past Now We’re Here
The present perfect of to be uses to have and the past participle been:
We use this tense when we need to:
1. Talk about situations, events, careers, etc., that started in the past and last until today or have recently ended.
She has been a nurse for 20 years.
It has been a disaster since then.
The trip has been amazing.
2. Talk about being or having been in a place.
He has been to Spain three times.
I have been here for two hours.
3. Say someone has not visited (or been to) a place yet.
This kind of sentences normally uses never:
I have never been to Italy.
They have never been here.
Negative sentences are built by adding not to the verb to have:
I have not (haven’t) been completely honest with you.
You have not (haven’t) been to Spain yet.
He/She/It has not (hasn’t) been happy ever since.
We have not (haven’t) been there this year.
You have not (haven’t) been the best parents.
They have not (haven’t) been to an airport before.
As for questions, swap the person and the verb form of to have:
Have I been completely honest?
Have you been to Spain?
Has he/she/it been happy since the accident?
Have we been there?
Have you been good parents?
Have they been to an airport before?
Past Perfect: Started in the Past and Stayed There
The past perfect of to be is super simple. It uses had been in every person. Have a look:
Use this tense when you want to:
1. 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 her girlfriend arrived.
2. To describe people, objects and places in the past.
Remember the situation described with the past perfect had to happen before another situation:
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.
3. To say that something had not happened before but now it has.
This might be surprising, but here is what it looks like:
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.)
It is very interesting to see this use of the past perfect in contrast with the present 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!)
If the present perfect is used to say you have not been to a place or something has not 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:
Mary has never been married. (She is not married.)
Mary had never been married before. (She is now married for the first time.)
As with the rest of the tenses, negative sentences in the past perfect are built by just adding not:
I had not (hadn’t) been there before.
You had not (hadn’t) been fat before you met him.
He/She/It had not (hadn’t) been so naughty until we moved last year.
We had not (hadn’t) been to Montevideo before.
You had not (hadn’t) been there before the incident happened.
They had not (hadn’t) been there for long when Carlo showed up.
Questions are formed with the use of inversion:
Had I been there before?
Had you been fat before you met him?
Had he/she/it been naughty before we moved last year?
Had we been to Montevideo before?
Had you been there before the incident happened?
Had they been there for long before Carlo showed up?
Future Simple: Things That Will Happen
The future simple of to be is another very easy tense to learn because it uses will be in every person:
We use the future simple to:
1. Talk about age and professions in the future.
He will be 18 next month.
I will be a firefighter when I grow up.
2. 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.
3. Say someone will be somewhere in the future.
I will be at school at eight.
She will be home soon.
To form negative sentences, just add not to will:
I will not (won’t) be here tomorrow.
You will not (won’t) be happy there.
He/She/It will not (won’t) be in London by Monday.
We will not (won’t) be at the cinema by then.
You will not (won’t) be home when I arrive.
They will not (won’t) be surprised.
Questions are, once again, formed by using inversion:
Will I be here tomorrow?
Will you be happy there?
Will he/she/it be in London by Monday?
Will we be at the cinema by then?
Will you be home when I arrive?
Will they be surprised?
Special forms of To Be: Beyond the Tenses
You now know the main to be tenses and how they are used. But there is 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 and when it does, it gets some very specific meanings as I mentioned before.
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, 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 of stative/dynamic when we want to complain about someone or something:
Peter talks too much. (Stative. This is a description, a statement.)
Peter is talking too much. (Dynamic. This is a complaint. He is being too talkative today.)
Question tags are little “tails” added at the end of a sentence. They have the form of a question, and they are normally used when we are looking for another person to give their opinion or agree with us.
If the main verb of a sentence is to be, most probably 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, and 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 is 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 does not cover modal verbs in detail, but it is worth mentioning that the verb to be can be added between a modal and the past participle of a verb:
These walls should be painted already.
It can’t be found anywhere.
As a matter of fact (in reality), 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 have learned a whole lot about the verb to be so far, but this post would not be complete without a list of expressions that use the verb to be in them.
It would be impossible to include all of them here, so below, we have listed the most important/common ones:
- To be to: Use this formal construction when you want to say someone has to do something in the near future. It can be equivalent to have to/must.
For example: 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 happens especially often when we need to write a sentence with can in a tense other than the present simple or the past simple.
For example: I have been able to finish on time. (We cannot say *I have canned to finish on time.)
- To be due to: We use to be due to 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.
For example: 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.
For example: I am about to go to the grocery store. Do you need anything?
- To be likely to: To be likely to means that it is possible that something will happen in the future.
For example: It is likely to rain tomorrow.
- To be meant to: Use this construction when you want to say that someone has to do something. It is their responsibility or duty.
For example: He is meant to be back by 10 p.m.
- To be supposed to: We use to be supposed to when we need to say that someone should do something or something should happen.
For example: It is supposed to rain tomorrow.
- To be + descriptive adjectives: This use of to be has been discussed throughout the post. Use to be + a descriptive adjective to describe people, animals, places, etc.
For example: She is very intelligent.
For example: They are tall and strong.
- To be late to/for: This construction means that someone did not, does not or will not arrive on time somewhere.
For example: I was late for the Spanish masterclass.
- To be sorry: This is how people apologize in English. I am sure you already know the expression “I am sorry.”
For example: She is never sorry.
For example: They were very sorry.
- To be mistaken: To be mistaken simply means to be wrong.
For example: She heard the class was at 10, but she may be mistaken.
For example: If I am not mistaken, you must be Mr. Perry.
- To be for/against: When you are for something or someone, you are giving that thing or person your support.
For example: I am for peaceful protesting.
When you are against something or someone, you don’t give that thing or person your support.
For example: I am against discrimination of any kind.
- To be right/wrong: If someone is right, they are correct in what they are thinking.
For example: Yes, you are right. We need to go back on foot.
If someone is wrong, they are not correct in what they are thinking.
For example: She was wrong all this time.
Phew! That was a long post!
However, you now have all the information you need to use the verb to be 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 smaller 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, and as always, happy learning!