Uses of the Verb To Be

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The verb to be is used in a number of different ways in English. Here are the main uses of the verb to be for reference, self-study and in-class use.

To Be As Main Verb

To be is used as a main verb to indicate the role or position that one has at work, family, or other organization.

Jennifer is my sister.
Frank is a doctor.
Alan was a guest at our house last week.

Forms:

The verb is used with simple and perfect tenses but not with continuous tenses.

 

Present simple: I am / You are / He - She - It is / We - You - They are
Past simple: I - He - She - It was / You - We - They were
Future simple: I - You - He - She - It - We - They will be
Present perfect: I - You - We - They have been / He - She - It has been
Past perfect: I - You - He - She - It - We - They had been

To Be as Main Verb with Adjectives

To be is also used as a main verb together with adjectives to express qualities about someone. It's possible to use only adjectives with Be, or adjectives which modify other nouns.

She is a beautiful woman.
Jack was a handsome man.
She is interesting.
They are ugly.

To Be as Main Verb with Locations

To be is used as a main verb to indicate location.

They are at lunch.
Our house is in the countryside.
Alice is in the backyard.

To Be as Main Verb with Comparative or Superlative Form

To be is also used with the comparative or superlative form to make comparison between people, places, objects, and ideas.

The Mercedes is faster than the Fiat.
New York is the most exciting city in the world.
My aunt Martha is a much better cook than my mother.

To be as Auxiliary Verb

Be is also used as an auxiliary verb in continuous tenses. Remember that the auxiliary verb takes the conjugation in English, so the verb Be will change depending on the continuous tense.

Here is a quick review of the tenses that use Be as an auxiliary verb:

Present Continuous: They are watching TV at the moment.

Past Continuous We were discussing the situation when he telephoned.

Present Perfect Continuous: They have been waiting for over an hour.

Future Continuous: Alex will be playing the piano at eight p.m. at the bar and grill.

Future Perfect Continuous: Max will have been playing the piano for two hours by the time he finishes.

To Be Used with Passive Voice

Be is also used together with the past participle form in all passive sentences. The verb to be is always conjugated in the passive voiced and is followed by the past participle. All passive sentences have the following structure:

Passive Subject + To Be + Past Participle

Here is a quick review of the most common tenses used with to be as the conjugated verb in passive sentences. Notice that to be in the passive can be used with continuous tenses.

Present simple: Many different types of cars are made in Detroit.
Present Continuous: That course is being taken by a number of students.
Past Simple: Her house was built in 1987.
Past Continuous: The ideas were being discussed while the decisions were being made.
Future with 'Will': She will be hired as a consultant.


Future with 'Going to': That book is going to be read by millions.
Present Perfect: Our vacation resort has been enjoyed by thousands.
Past Perfect: The dinner had been prepared before they arrived.

Be Usage Quiz

Decide whether the use of be is as a main verb (M), auxiliary verb (A), or as passive voice (P).

  1. I'm going to take a vacation next week.
  2. Kevin has been promoted at work.
  3. She's a happy student.
  4. They are going to be happy when they hear the news. 
  5. The symphony was composed by Johannes Brahms. 
  6. We were having a good time when he arrived spoiled everything!
  7. The car has been polished and waxed.
  8. Classes are more difficult at Harvard than at Boston University.
  9. They children have been at that school for more than three years. 
  10. I'm a happy man.

Answers

  1. A auxiliary verb
  2. P passive voice
  3. M main verb
  4. A auxiliary verb AND M main verb (are - auxiliary / going to be - main verb)
  1. P passive voice
  2. A auxiliary verb
  3. P passive voice
  4. M main verb
  5. M main verb
  6. M main verb