ESL – The verb ‘to be’ – Part 2

10 October

Past forms of the verb ‘to be’

Past Simple

Past simple indicates that something happened at some specific time in the past, such as: “Her house was built in 1987.”



I was.

We were.

You were.

You were.

He/She/It was.

They were.

Note that the past singular requires “was” for the first and third person, while “were” is used with a second-person pronoun. All forms are the same—”were”—for the plural tenses.

Past Perfect

The past perfect indicates actions or events that have been completed or have happened in the past.



I had been.

We had been.

You had been.

You had been.

He/She/It had been.

They had been.

Some examples include:

  • Peter had been to the office before they arrived.
  • How long had you been in town before he called you?

Peter had been to the post office presumably only once before they arrived, and the person being addressed in the second sentence had “been in town” for a specific time period before “he called.”

Past Continuous

The past continuous is usually used to refer to events happening at the same time that something important was occurring.



I was being

We were being

You were being

You were being

He/She/It was being

They were being

An example of the past continuous in a sentence would be: “The ideas were being discussed while the decisions were being made.” In this case, the past continuous is used twice to highlight how one action was taking place at the same time as another: Ideas “were being” discussed at the same time decisions “were being” made.

Other Present and Past Uses

“To be” can also be used in other ways in the present and past tense, such as:

  • The comparative or superlative form to make a comparison between people, places, objects, and ideas. Used as such, the “to be” verb works like an adjective: “The Mercedes is faster than the Fiat,” or “The Mercedes is the fastest car on the lot.”
  • In  the  modal  form, also known as the present possibility, indicating that something may occur, as in: “He should be at church waiting for us,” and past possibility indicating that something might have happened in the past, as in: “He might have been at school or at home.”
  • copular verb where “to be” joins the subject of a sentence or clause to a complement. These complements are generally descriptions that are often adjective or noun phrases, such as “I am sometimes late for work.” A copular “to be” verb is essentially a transitive verb, except that the object is a phrase or clause rather than a single word. In this case, the “to be” verb, am, links the subject “I” with the description of the subject, (a person who is) “sometimes late for work.”

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