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The Verb “To Be” Explained, With Examples

Updated on December 14, 2022Grammar

The irregular verb to be is the most complicated of all the English verbs—and it just so happens to be the most used, too. The to be verbs are am, are, is, was, and were, along with the bare infinitive be, the present participle being, and the past participle been

In this guide, we explain all you need to know about grammar for the verb to be. We’ll share all the forms and when to use them and give to be examples for each type of usage. 

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What are the to be verbs?

The verb to be means to exist (I am here), to occur (The meeting is Tuesday), or to have the characteristics of something (She was a quiet child). It is the most common verb in English, partly because of its additional uses in grammar: to be verbs can be auxiliary verbs that help create other tenses or linking verbs that help describe the subject of a sentence. 

As an irregular verb, to be has its own unique forms. When conjugated for different subjects or tenses, the verb to be can become am, are, is, was, or were. It’s also written differently in certain verb tenses: The present participle of to be is being. The past participle is been, and the bare infinitive form is be. 

Forms of to be verbs

Simple present and past tenses

The verb to be is most commonly used in the simple present and simple past tenses. These tenses each use their own special words for to be, depending on the person and number of the subject. 

Simple present tense

Singular Plural
First person (I) am (we) are
Second person (you) are (you) are
Third person (he/she/it) is (they) are

 

Simple past tense

Singular Plural
First person (I) was (we) were
Second person (you) were (you) were
Third person (he/she/it) was (they) were

 

The simple present and simple past tenses of to be are also used as auxiliary verbs to create the present continuous and past continuous tenses, which show an ongoing or continuous action. 

As with other tenses, in the continuous tenses, to be verbs are still conjugated to match the subject. The main verb of the sentence comes after to be and is always in its present participle form (the –ing form), regardless of the subject. 

[conjugated to be] + [present participle]

The present continuous uses the simple present tense of to be verbs (am, are, and is):

We are driving home right now

The past continuous uses the simple past (was and were): 

We were driving for hours yesterday

Simple future and modal forms

The future tenses do not conjugate to be like the past and present do. The simple future tense uses the modal verb will, and all modal verbs use the bare infinitive form of the main verb, regardless of the subject. The bare infinitive of to be is just be, without to. The simple future tense of to be looks like this:

I will be in Medellin tomorrow. 

The future continuous tense includes a main verb that comes after will be

I will be flying to Medellin tomorrow. 

We use the bare infinitive be with all modal verbs, such as can, should, might, or must. Simply add be after the modal verb or after the negative word if the sentence is negative.

You can be anything if you try. 

He must be exhausted after that. 

They should not be here. 

Present participle 

What if you want to use to be as the main verb in a continuous tense? In this case, you would use to be twice: first as an auxiliary verb and second as a present participle. 

Don’t listen to me: I am being paranoid. 

This works for the present and past continuous tenses, but we generally avoid using to be as the main verb in the future continuous—the simple future works fine in this situation. 

[INCORRECT] I will be being hungry tomorrow. 

[CORRECT] I will be hungry tomorrow. 

Past participle 

The perfect tenses use a conjugated form of the auxiliary verb have with the past participle of the main verb afterward. 

[conjugated have] + [past participle]

The past participle of to be is been, used if to be is the main verb in a perfect tense. The present perfect tense uses have or has, while the past perfect uses had:

I have been tired since my first day of school. 

It had been a bad day even before it started raining. 

To be grammar rules

1 Subject-verb agreement

All verbs must agree with their subjects, something called subject-verb agreement. This means that the verb’s person and number must match the subject’s. So if the subject is first person and singular (I), the verb must be first person and singular (am). 

[INCORRECT] Felipe am class president. 

[INCORRECT] Felipe are class president. 

[CORRECT] Felipe is class president. 

Most regular verbs change only for third-person singular subjects in the present tense, but to be is more complicated because it has more forms than other verbs. 

One particularly difficult area of subject-verb agreement concerns when to use there is vs. there are which we cover in detail here. To summarize, when it follows there, the verb to be matches the number of the noun after it and not that of the subject. 

[INCORRECT] There is the ducks. 

[CORRECT] There are the ducks. 

2 Negatives

While writing negative verbs can be confusing, it’s fairly simple with the to be verbs. In the present and past tenses, put the negative word immediately after to be

You are not my enemy. 

She was never on time. 

For future tenses, put the negative word after will and before the bare infinitive be

We will not be attending. 

Don’t forget that you can use contractions with to be verbs. These are especially common in speech. 

This isn’t my cup of tea. 

It won’t be long now. 

3 Questions

The verb to be also follows its own rules for questions (interrogative sentences). While other verbs use the auxiliary verb to do for yes-no questions, to be does not. However, like other verbs, to be still comes before the subject in yes-no questions, even when it’s used as an auxiliary verb. 

Is that allowed? 

Were you listening?

Are they going now? 

Examples of the verb to be in sentences

To be: present tense 

She is a natural-born leader. 

I am freezing in this outfit. 

To be: past tense 

We were in danger without even knowing it. 

It was the best night of the trip. 

To be: present perfect tense 

You have been quiet tonight. 

Umar has been our team captain for two years. 

To be: past perfect tense 

She had been a waitress for years before they promoted her to manager. 

I had forgotten the answer when I was taking the test. 

To be: present continuous tense 

He is studying, so don’t bother him. 

You are being awfully suspicious. 

To be: past continuous tense 

We were watching TV when the earthquake started. 

She was being as polite as possible. 

To be: future tenses 

You will be sore after exercising with me! 

Their plane will be landing shortly. 

To be: modal verbs 

I might be wrong. 

If you lived here, you would be home right now. 

Questions using to be verbs

Is this the right room? 

Was that red light always flashing? 

Negatives with to be verbs

We are not making enough progress. 

She had never been dumped before. 

Imperative to be verbs

Be a friend and pay for dinner. 

Don’t be a stranger!

To be verbs FAQs

What is the verb to be?

The verb to be means to exist, occur, or show the characteristics of something. An irregular verb, it is the most common verb in English and can function as a main verb, an auxiliary verb, or a linking verb. 

How do to be verbs work?

Subject-verb agreement says that a verb must match the number and person of the subject, so if the subject is third-person plural (for example, they), the verb must also be third-person plural (like are or were). There are three forms of to be verbs in the present (am, are, and is) and two forms in the past (was and were). 

What are the most common tenses of to be verbs?

The past and present tenses are the most common for to be verbs. Additionally, as an auxiliary verb, to be is necessary to create the continuous tenses.

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