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The verb to be

verb to be

The verb "to be" - forms, uses and examples

Index : To be - main verb To be - auxiliary To be as a modal

1. The verb to be as a main verb

The verb to be is the fundamental verb used to indicate the existence of an entity (person, object, abstraction) or to relate an entity to its qualities or characteristics. In linguistics, it is sometimes known as a copula.

Unlike transitive verbs, it does not take a direct object, but a complement, since the subject and complement of the verb to be relate to the same entity. The complement of to be can be a noun, a noun phrase, an adjective, or a prepositional phrase

Forms of the verb to be
Person Present preterit Present perfect Past perfect
1st sing. I am
was have been
had been

2nd sing you are
were have been
3rd sing he, she, etc. is
was has been
1st plural. we are
have been
2nd plural you are
have been
3rd plural they are
have been

Examples of usage of the verb to be as main verb

That man is the boss.
That man is the winner of last year's Nobel Prize for physics.
That lady is very intelligent
That man is in rather a difficult situation
I have been here before
She was much prettier in her younger days.
The three ladies were all sisters.
The man had been in the water for an hour, before anyone found him.

2. The verb to be as auxiliary

2.1. Progressive forms with be

The verb to be is used as an auxiliary to denote the progressive or continuous aspect of an action; it is thus used to form the "present progressive" and "past progressive" and other progressive tenses (also called the present continuous and past continuous tenses, etc.).  In this case, be is followed by the present participle of a verb.

Model "stand" Present
Future pro­gressive Preterit
Present perfect pro­gressive Past perfect pro­gressive
1st sing I am stand­ing I will be stand­ing I was stand­ing I have been stand­ing I had been stand­ing
2nd sing you are stand­ing You will be stand­ing You were stand­ing You have been stand­ing You had been stand­ing
3rd sing he / she... is stand­ing He / she ... will be stand­ing He/ she ... was stand­ing He / she... have been stand­ing he / she ... had been stand­ing
1st plural we are stand­ing We will be stand­ing We were stand­ing We have been stand­ing We had been stand­ing
2nd plural you are stand­ing You will be stand­ing You were stand­ing You have been stand­ing You had been stand­ing
3rd plural they are stand­ing They will be stand­ing They were stand­ing They have been stand­ing They had been stand­ing
Other tenses can be formed, including tenses with modal auxiliaries: examples
    I could have been eating       -     They must have been telling the truth

2.2. Passive forms with be

The verb to be is also used as an auxiliary to form passive tenses. In this case, the auxiliary be is followed by the past participle of a verb.
Sample verb "Take" Present
simple passive
Future passive Pret­erit passive Present perfect passive Past perfect passive
1st sing I am taken I will be taken I was taken I have been taken I had been taken
3rd sing It...  is taken He / she ... will be taken He / she ... was taken He / she ... has been taken He / she ... had been taken
Other tenses can be formed, including tenses with modal auxiliaries: examples
    You could have been seriously injured.    -    They must have been told the truth.

2.3. Progressive and passive

As to be is used both to form passive tenses, and tenses with progressive aspect, it follows that it is used twice in verb forms that are both passive and progressive..
   While a complete range of tenses is theoretically possible, in practice English only has two passive progressive tenses, the present progressive passive, and the past progressive passive.

Progressive tenses in the passive
Sample verb "help" Present progressive passive Past progressive passive
1st sing I am being helped I was being helped
3rd sing It...  is being  helped He / she ... was being helped

Get used instead of be in passive forms :

In everyday English, the  auxiliary be can often but not always be replaced by get to express a verb in the passive, whether in progressive or simple aspect.
She was being / was getting taken to hospital, when suddenly she felt much worse.
The computer network is down, as the server is being/ is getting changed.
The window is being / is getting mended.
The staff were being given their daily instructions.
Next I was taken / got taken to see the director of human resources.

2.4. Avoid confusion

Remember that
The chicken was eating its dinner
   The chicken was eaten for dinner.
They were telling the truth, when they said that they knew nothing
   They were told the truth, when the man finally confessed.
The women have been asking to  see the managing director.
   The women have been asked to see the managing director.

3. The verb to be as a modal verb

The verb to be is occasionally used as a modal auxiliary; but in this it is a strange verb, as it can have either a value of futurity, or a value of obligation, or something between the two, supposition.  
  In the first and third persons, it is a modal whose most common value is  futurity: in the second person, its main value is one of obligation. However, this distinction is not always true.

Person Present Preterit
1st sing. I   I am to make
was to make
2nd sing you You are to make
were to make
3rd sing he, she, etc. ... is  to make was to make
1st plural. we  ... are  to make were to make
2nd plural you ... are to make were to make
3rd plural they ... are to make were to make
In other words, while "I'm to get a new car next week" would normally mean "I'm going to get a new car next week" (futurity), "You're to go to London next week" would normally mean "You should go to London next week" (mild obligation).  However, in many cases,  ambiguity is possible, even if context usually clarifies the meaning.
  • The train was to leave at 8  (meaning: The train was supposed to leave at 8)
  • I'm to work in London next year  (I'm going to / have to work in London.....)
  • I'm to make three of these cakes ( I must / am supposed to make three..... )
  • He's to stand as candidate for the presidency ( He is going to stand.....)
  • The children were to stay at home that afternoon (The children were meant to / were going to .....)
  • After that, they were to get lost. (After that, they were going to get lost).
  • After that, they were to go home (After that, they were supposed to go home).
  • You're to get better marks next time.  (You must get better marks ....)
  • When you get home, you're to go straight to bed. (When you get home, you must go straight to bed).

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