The verb “to be” is one of the shortest and most important—yet oddest—verbs in the English language. It is an irregular verb; indeed, it is the only verb in English that completely changes form in every tense. The verb “to be” is probably the most important verb in English. It can be used in simple statements such as:
- How are you?
- It is a beautiful day!
- I am from Italy.
The “to be” verb can also be used to express complex thoughts: It is the verb at the very core of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet, where the title character speaks the famous line: “To be, or not to be.” (“Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 1) Hamlet was asking whether it is better to be dead or alive, or in other words, whether to exist or not exist.
At heart, that’s what the “to be” verb connotes: a state of being or existence. It’s a very common verb, but it’s important to learn how to use it properly.
“To Be” as a Linking, Transitive, or Auxiliary Verb
Before conjugating the verb “to be” in the present and past forms, it’s important to understand what this verb does. The verb “to be” is is a stative verb: It refers to the way things are—their appearance, state of being, and even their smell. “To be” or “be” can be a linking verb: It joins the subject of a sentence to a word or phrase that tells something about the subject, such as in these examples:
- Jennifer is my sister.
- That television show is interesting.
- Our house is in the countryside.
“To be” can also be an auxiliary—or helping—verb: It works with the main verb, as in these examples:
- Kim is making a clay vase.
- Joe had built his first model rocket last year.
- People have admired Michelangelo’s sculptures for centuries.
“To be” can also be a transitive verb, which is a verb that takes an object, either a direct or an indirect object. An example would be: “Sue is talking.” In the sentence, the “to be” verb, “is,” takes a direct object, “talking.”
The present tense of the verb to be, as with any verb, can take several forms: the indicative or simple present, present perfect, and present continuous.
The tables below show how to conjugate to be in these forms:
|I am||We are|
|You are||You are|
|He/She/It is||They are|
Note that even in the indicative—or simple—present tense, the verb changes in the first, second, and third person uses.
The present perfect, formed by combining has or have with a past participle, usually a verb ending in -d, -ed, or -n, indicates actions or events that have been completed or have happened in the present.
|I have been.||We have been.|
|You have been.||You have been.|
|He/She/It has been.||They have been.|
Examples of the present perfect include:
- I have been a teacher for many years.
- She has been to France more than 10 times in her life.
To correctly use the verb in the present perfect, just remember that only the third-person singular uses “has.” All of the other forms in this tense use “have.”
The present continuous, also known as the present progressive, is generally used to express something happening at the moment.
|I am tensing.||We are tensing.|
|You are tensing.||You are tensing.|
|He/She/It is tensing.||They are tensing.|
An example sentence might be: “That course is being taken by a number of students.” Notice how the “to be” verb changes depending on the person—first, second, or third—as well as the number, singular or plural.
There’s no easy trick to learning which form of “to be” to use here. Just remember, the first person, singular requires “am,” second person requires “are,” and “third-person singular requires “is.” Fortunately, all the plural forms use “are.”