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 for a number of purposes including to express someone's role in an organization or a relationship:

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

The verb to be is a stative verb.

In other words, to be does not describe an action, but a state. To be is used with simple and perfect tenses. However, like other stative verbs, it is not used with continuous forms such as the present continuous or the present perfect continuous. 

To Be as Main Verb with Adjectives

To be is also used as a main verb together with adjectives to express qualities about a person, place or object:

Kansas is a beautiful state.
Jack was a handsome man.
That television show is interesting.

To Be as Main Verb with Locations

To be is often used as a main verb in simple sentences to indicate location with a prepositional phrase such as on the corner.

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

To Be as Linking Verb

As you continue to improve your English, you'll find that to be is used with longer sentences as a linking verb. This is similar to the use of to be with adjectives.

The subject of the sentence is linked by the be verb to a definition of the subject. This is often referred to as the subject compliment. The subject compliment answers the question: What is the subject? 

The concert at the philharmonic was a resounding success.
Grammar concepts such as tenses and conditional forms will be the top priority for this class.
Your desire to please others will be your ticket to success.

To Be as Main Verb with Comparative or Superlative Form

To be is 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

To be can take the role of an auxiliary verb in continuous tenses. Remember that the auxiliary verb takes the conjugation in English, so the verb to be will change depending on the continuous tense. Here is a quick review of the tenses that use to 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

To be is also used together with the past participle in all passive sentences. The verb to be is always conjugated in the passive voice 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)
  5. P passive voice
  6. A auxiliary verb
  7. P passive voice
  8. M main verb
  9. M main verb
  10. M main verb
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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Uses of the Verb To Be." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/uses-of-the-verb-to-be-1210772. Beare, Kenneth. (2017, August 29). Uses of the Verb To Be. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/uses-of-the-verb-to-be-1210772 Beare, Kenneth. "Uses of the Verb To Be." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/uses-of-the-verb-to-be-1210772 (accessed November 21, 2017).