The Curious Case of the Verb “To Be”
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. The very first thing most of us learned after the English alphabet was “I am…”, “My name is…”, and “How are you?”. The verb “to be” occurs in each of these examples, and in three different forms!
Most other verbs take a suffix or two to change their form, e.g. “mix” into “mixes” and “mixed”. The verb to be, on the other hand, likes to be different.
In this article, I will break down the walls surrounding the English verb “to be” to shed some light on this verb phenomenon and make all of its linguistic features as comprehensive as possible.
Saying that the English verb “to be” has many forms is an understatement. Let’s count them up real quick before delving deeper into all the different case scenarios each of these forms are used in.
to be, be, am, are, is, was, were, been
Now, don’t get your hopes up just yet! Yes, there are only eight basic forms here, which isn’t a lot, but the “fun” part lies in the variations; negative and interrogative forms, combinations with other verbs due to specific tense forms, contractions, etc.
So, let’s do the counting once again.
to be, not to be, be, not be, am, am not, are, are not, aren’t, is, is not, isn’t, was, was not, wasn’t, were, were not, weren’t, have been, have not been, haven’t been, has been, has not been, hasn’t been, had been, had not been, hadn’t been, will be, will not be, won’t be, would be, would not be, wouldn’t be, will have been, will not have been, won’t have been
A friendly piece of advice: don’t even bother counting all of these forms because the list does not end there. In fact, many of the forms above can be followed with the verb form “being” in continuous tenses.
It’s a lot, I know. This brings us to the main question of the day:
When and how are all forms of the verb “to be” used in English?
In a nutshell, knowing when and how to use “to be” can depend on three things:
– the tense.
– the sentence type.
– complementary words and their location, whether it’s a pronoun, noun, another verb, etc.
The “many” forms of “to be” listed above all depend on the English tenses they are used in. It’s that simple.
Here’s an efficient way to say that the verb “to be” changes its form depending on the tense:
The verb “to be” in English has a different form in the present, past, and future tenses. The present tense forms are “am”, “are”, and “is”, depending on the pronoun. The past forms are “was” and “were”, also depending on the pronoun, while the future tense uses the verb “will” before “be”. We can also mention the past participle form “been” that is used in all perfect tenses, as well as the passive.
That’s it! On the surface, that’s all you need to know about the form of “to be” in different tenses. The rest is just pure old grammar practice to discover all other possible forms that are mostly in combination with other verbs.
The Sentence Type
This factor is definitely the simplest to wrap your head around out of the three listed above. Depending on whether a sentence using “to be” is affirmative, negative or interrogative, the form and location of “to be” in that sentence are affected.
This change can also affect the overall meaning or context of a sentence. This is especially true for questions in English.
Let me show you what I mean:
“Are you sitting here?” vs. “You’re sitting here?”
The difference here might be easier to understand through listening, as intonation of these two sentences would vary.
In the first sentence, someone might just be asking a question to check whether a seat is free for the taking. However, the second one might indicate disapproval or surprise.
It’s a big difference for just one small change, don’t you think?
This part is probably going to be the most fun for learners who like to constantly learn new language vocabulary and double down on their grammar. The cool thing about “to be” is that it can be used to say the same thing in a much fancier way than usual, depending on the word that follows it.
For example, why say “to exist” when you can say “to be in existence”. Why use “to support” instead of “to be supportive of”? Yes, it’s verbose, but it can be quite useful when writing or speaking.
Moreover, using “to be” when it’s sandwiched between different words in a very specific context can be more than unnecessary. To fully understand this, let’s consider the following sentences:
“She wanted a book that was written by J.K. Rowling.”
“A lesson that is learned is a lesson that is worth.”
Looking at the underlined forms of “to be” in the sentences above, it’s clear that they don’t really do much other than just sit there. What is more, eliminating them completely will not affect the meaning of the sentences, at all.
Further down the line, “to be” is literally the Holy Grail of forming passive sentences. The combination of “to be” and the “past participle” of any given verb that follows it is ultimately what creates the passive voice, e.g. “This article will be shared by all LingQ followers.”
To avoid swarming you with even more details, I’ll stop today’s list here, even though there’s a lot more where that came from.
However, if you are eager to check how well you can get around all of these forms and use cases, LingQ’s 90-Day Language Challenge is the perfect way to start.
Not only are you going to be able to naturally use “to be” in any given scenario without much hesitation but it is a guaranteed way to boost your motivation and make a breakthrough on your language learning journey.
You should definitely try it out!
So, where does that leave us with the verb “to be”?
If I had to pick one English word to summarize everything that the verb “to be” has to offer within the English language, it would have to be “labyrinth”.
There are so many different, almost crazy routes within this labyrinth that inadvertently lead to the same thing, which in our case is the verb we’ve just spent so much time and effort on.
Truth be told, English is really not that hard to learn for basic communication purposes. However, if you want to speak it right, just know that it’s the tiny bits and pieces such as the verb “to be” that can become a huge headache.
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Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.