Conjugating the Verb 'To Be'

Forms and functions of the irregular verb 'to be'

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The verb to be is one of the shortest and most important—yet oddest—verbs in the English language. It's an irregular verb, and indeed, the only one in English that completely changes form in each tense.

Usage of To Be

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.

However, it can also be used to express complex thoughts. In fact, it's the verb at the very core of one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, "Hamlet," in which the title character speaks the famous line: "To be, or not to be?" In this famous quotation, Prince Hamlet is questioning his very existence, and in effect, wondering if it's better to be dead than alive. At its core, that's what to be connotes: a state of being or existence.

To Be as a Linking, Transitive, or Auxiliary Verb

To be is a very common verb, however, it's important to learn how to use it properly. Before conjugating the verb in its present and past tenses, it's important to understand what this verb does.

To be is a  stative verb, meaning, 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 that joins the subject of a sentence to a word or phrase that tells something about the subject, 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 that 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 either a direct or indirect object. An example would be: "Sue is talking." In this sentence, is, the "to be" verb, takes a direct object, talking.

To Be: Present Tense

As with any verb, the present tense of the verb to be can take several forms: the indicative or simple present, the present perfect, and the present continuous. The tables below show how to conjugate to be in these forms:

Indicative Mode

Singular

Plural

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.

To Be: Present Perfect

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.

Singular

Plural

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 several 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.

To Be: Present Continuous

The present continuous, also known as the present progressive, is generally used to express something happening at the moment.

Singular

Plural

I am thinking.

We are thinking.

You are thinking.

You are thinking.

He/She/It is thinking.

They are thinking.

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—firstsecond, 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, the second person requires are, and third-person singular requires is. Fortunately, all the plural forms use are.

To Be: Past Simple

Past simple indicates that something happened at a specific time in the past, as in: "Her house was built in 1987."

Singular

Plural

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 use were for the plural tenses.

Past Perfect

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

Singular

Plural

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."

To Be: Past Continuous

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

Singular

Plural

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 of To Be

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 is when to be is used to join the subject of a sentence or clause to a complement. Generally, these complements are descriptions, 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."