How to use to be verbs in English

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English is full of complex verbs that can serve different purposes, like being a predicate or helping build a correct sentence. One of them is the verb ‘to be.’ It can change its form depending on the pronoun and tense and can be placed differently in the sentence.

Understanding the rules for the ‘to be’ verbs is challenging for language learners, and there’s no chance of skipping such material. In this article, we will explain all the nuances of the verb ‘to be,’ provide all the rules in a simple manner, and give you some examples.

What are to be verbs

The main function of all to-be verbs is to indicate the existence of something or somebody. Additionally, the verb ‘to be’ in English can serve as an auxiliary verb to form sentences in different tenses and helps to form passive voice and imperative sentences. Finally, many regular expressions go with ‘to be’ in the English language.

Forms of to be verbs

The verb ‘to be’ can have several forms, each serving a special purpose in the English language. 

To be verbsPurposeExamples
beThe base form of the verb. It’s used in imperative sentences, subjunctive mood, and future tense sentences.

Be quiet! (imperative)

It’s crucial that he be present. (subjunctive)

They will be there. (future tense)

am, is, areUsed for different subjects in the present tense. Am goes for the first person singular ‘I,’ is goes for the third person singular ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘it,’ and are goes for the second person singular ‘you’ and plural subjects ‘we,’ ‘you,’ ‘they.’

I am a student.

She is a teacher.

They are friends.

was, wereThe past tense of the verb ‘to be.’ ‘Was’ is used with ‘I,’ ‘he,’ ‘she’, ‘it.’ ‘Were’ is used with ‘we,’ ‘you,’ ‘they.’

I was in the swimming pool.

She was ill yesterday.

They were ready for the race.

beenPast participle form that is used in perfect tenses (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect) and passive voice.

I have been to Paris. (present perfect)

They had been friends for years. (past perfect)

She will have been working for eight hours. (future perfect)

The work has been completed. (passive voice)


 

beingPresent participle of the verb ‘to be,’ that is used for continuous tenses and gerund form.

Being honest is important. (gerund)

He is being kind. (continuous)

As you can see, the verb ‘to be’ is one of the most fundamental and versatile verbs in the English language, serving as the backbone of many sentence structures. Below, there are more details for using different forms of ‘be.’

Simple present and past tenses

One of the most common situations when you use ‘to be’ is a sentence in present simple or past simple tense. 

 Present simple singularPresent simple pluralPast simple singular Past simple plural
First-person(I) am(We) are (I) was(We) were
Second person(You) are(You) are(You) were(You) were
Third person(He, she, it) is(They) are(He, she, it) wasThey (were)

Additionally, all these forms are used in present and past continuous tenses, representing an ongoing action. In such situations, ‘to be’ is used as an auxiliary verb that helps to create an accurate sentence structure.

In conclusion, the verb 'be' demonstrates remarkable flexibility and variation in its forms, adapting to different subjects and tenses in English. Each form plays a unique role in constructing meaningful sentences, whether it's denoting states of being, forming various tenses, or creating passive constructions. Understanding these forms is essential for mastering English grammar, as they are integral to expressing existence, identity, and actions across time. 

Simple future tense and use with modal verbs

Using the verb ‘to be’ in the present future, language learners should remember the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to.’

  1. When using ‘will,’ the verb ‘to be’ is not conjugated. The structure is: ‘subject+will+be.’
    • I will be there at 8.
    • Granny will be happy to see you.
  2. When using ‘be going to,’ the verb ‘to be’ is conjugated according to the subject form only inside the phrase ‘be going to.’ The sentence structure is: ‘subject+am/is/are+going to+be.’
    • I am going to be a doctor.
    • It’s going to be cold tomorrow.

When it comes to modal verbs, the rules are similar. The verb ‘to be’ isn’t conjugated. The structure of the sentence is as follows: ‘subject+modal verb+be.’

  • You must be tired after the long trip. (assumption)
  • They might be at the cinema. (possibility)
  • She can be very persuasive. (ability)

Practicing the use of the verb ‘be’ with modal verbs and in future tenses will quickly help you understand that it is not challenging. However, it is crucial to correctly express a wide range of meanings and nuances.

Grammar rules

Using different forms of ‘be,’ you have to follow some rules to deliver all the messages and ideas accurately. First of all, remember that you should follow subject-verb agreement. That means that the verb form changes depending on the number and person of the subject. For example:

  • We am going to the school. (incorrect)
  • We are going to the school. (correct)

There are more cases when the sentence structure might be changed. One of such is using ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ existential constructions. Below, there are some more common situations. 

Negative sentences

In English, the verb ‘be’ is used in negative sentences to indicate the opposite or denial of a statement. Depending on the tense, some negative sentences with ‘to be’ might confuse language learners. 

To form a negative sentence using ‘be’ in present and past tenses, you generally need to add the word ‘not’ after the appropriate form of ‘be.’

  1. I’m not hungry.
  2. You are not late.
  3. Jake was not at the party.
  4. His teammates weren’t prepared for the game.

In future tense, there are two rules:

  1. With ‘will,’ you should put ‘not’ right after the verb ‘will.’ You can also conjugate ‘will'+' not,’ forming ‘won’t.’
    • I will not be a doctor.
    • She won’t be rich anymore.
  2. With ‘be going to’ you should put ‘not’ right before the ‘going to’ part.
    • I am not going to be at Jake’s party.
    • She is not going to be an actress.

Interrogative sentences

Interrogative sentences are those used to ask questions. Forming questions with ‘to be’ verbs, you will use inversion or question words. In inversion to form an interrogative sentence with ‘be,’ you typically invert the subject and the appropriate form of ‘be.’ The structure is: ‘be+subject+other part of the sentence.’ Here are some examples:

  • Am I late? (Interrogative sentence using 'am')
  • Are you coming to the party? (Interrogative sentence using 'are')
  • Is she your sister? (Interrogative sentence using 'is')
  • Were they at the concert? (Interrogative sentence using 'were')

In interrogative sentences with ‘be,’ you can use question words (who, what, how and so on) to seek specific information. The structure is ‘question word+be+subejct+other part of the sentence.’ Here are some examples:

  • Who is at the door? (Using 'who' to ask about the identity of the person)
  • What are you doing? (Using 'what' to ask about an action or activity)
  • Where were they last night? (Using 'where' to ask about a location)
  • Why is he upset? (Using 'why' to ask for the reason)
  • How am I supposed to do this? (Using 'how' to ask for a method or manner)

Practice forming the interrogative sentences with ‘to be’ to remember the rules and use the verb correctly.

5

Question tags

One more type of question sentences, are tag ones. Tag questions are short questions added to the end of a statement to seek confirmation or agreement. When using 'be' in a statement, you can form a tag question by using the appropriate form of 'be' as the tag. You should always add ‘not’ to the correct form of ‘be’ in question tags. Here are some examples:

  • You are coming to the party, aren't you?
  • She is your friend, isn't she?
  • They were at the store, weren't they?

These rules should help you form grammatically correct interrogative sentences using the verb 'be' in various contexts. Remember to adjust the form of 'be' and the sentence structure based on the specific question you want to ask.

Imperative sentences

Imperative sentences are used to give commands, instructions, or make requests. They might be affirmative, negative, and interrogative (the last one is usually used to be polite). 

Giving a command, or instruction, you should use the bare infinitive of the verb ‘be.’ For example:

  • Be quite!
  • Be careful!
  • Be there are 9 a.m.

In negative imperative sentences you should put an auxiliary verb ‘do’ with ‘not’ before the verb ‘to be.’

  • Don't be late.
  • Don't be rude.
  • Don't be careless.

Imperative sentences can also be used to make polite requests. To do this, you can add phrases like "please" or use a more polite tone when giving the command. In such cases, you still follow the same rules as mentioned above for forming affirmative or negative imperative sentences.

  • Please be quiet.
  • Could you be there on time, please?
  • Don't be too hard on yourself, please.

Imperative sentences usually don’t contain a subject since it’s understood to be the person or people you are addressing. However, you can use ‘you’ or someone’s name in the sentence to add clarity and specify the subject.

  • You be quiet.
  • Jake, don't be late.
  • You be yourself.

Remember that imperative sentences are typically used to give direct commands or make requests, so they are a bit different from declarative or interrogative sentences. Be clear and concise when using "be" in imperative sentences to convey your message effectively.

Regular expressions with to be

The English language is rich with expressions that incorporate the verb 'to be', each carrying its own unique nuance and implication. Explaining the usage of ‘to be’ is incomplete without a list of such expressions. 

  • To be up to: Implies being engaged in something or responsible for something. For example, "What are you up to this weekend?"
  • To be into: Suggests having an interest or passion for something. For example, "She is really into classical music."
  • To be over: Indicates that something has finished or come to an end. For example, "The movie is over."
  • To be off: Can mean to depart or start a journey, or indicate something is incorrect. For example, "I will be off for the night."
  • To be down to: Often implies being willing to do something or having a reduced amount left of something. For example, "I'm down to go hiking this weekend," or "We are down to the last piece of cake."
  • To be out of: Indicates a lack or depletion of something. For example, "We are out of milk.’
  • To be on to: Suggests realizing or becoming aware of something, often a truth or idea. For example, "I think he's on to us."
  • To be in for: Implies expecting or likely to experience something, often a challenge or trouble. For example, "You're in for a surprise!"

Keep in mind that this is not a complete list. There are much more expressions with a verb ‘to be’ in English. They demonstrate the flexibility and depth of the language. Mastering these phrases, you will enrich your communication and understand others as well. As such, familiarizing oneself with these expressions is an invaluable part of becoming an effective communicator in English.

Conclusion

The verb ‘to be’ is invaluable part of English language. Some of the rules of using ‘to be’ might be challenging for language learners. However, with practice comes the mastery. In Promova application you will find many exercises to practice using ‘to be’ in real-life situations. Learn the rules, complete some exercises and become confident about ‘to be’ verbs.

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