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To Be, or Not To Be

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We explain what makes the verb “to be” so special, and go over the many forms it takes.

Forms of the verb "to be" are: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.
The verb “to be” has eight forms.
Correct Use

  • The verb to be indicates a state of being or existence.
  • To be is an irregular verb.
  • There are eight forms of the verb to be:
    • ○ Present: am, is, are
      ○ Simple past: was, were
      ○ Infinitive: be
      ○ Present participle: being
      ○ Past participle: been

As far as irregular verbs go, to be is definitely the most irregular. It’s unique in that it’s the only verb that has eight forms. Even with all of its complexities, it’s still one of the most important (and most used) verbs in English. That being said, it may be a good idea to be familiarized with all the forms of this verb.

“To be, or not to be” is a famous line from “Hamlet,” a William Shakespeare play in which the main character, Prince Hamlet, contemplates life and death, or existing and not existing.

The Verb “To Be”

A verb is a word that defines “an action or state of being.” There are many types of verbs. Action verbs, for example, describe something that a person, animal, or object is doing. They’re usually easy to recognize:

She laughed during the comedy show.
They danced all night.
He arrived home at 11:00 PM.

In these examples, laughed, danced and arrived describe the action of the subject. The verb to be is not an action verb. Instead, it's a verb that expresses a state of being. These can be more difficult to distinguish.


Forms of the Verb “To Be”

The verb to be is used to describe that state of existence of people, things, places, and ideas. To be is a unique verb because it has three forms in the present tense and two forms in the simple past:

Infinitive be
Past participle been
Present participle being
Present I am, he/she/it is, we/you/they are
Simple past I/he/she/it was, we/you/they were

The correct form of the verb to be depends on the subject and the tense of the sentence.

I just want my baby to be healthy.
They have been calling my phone all day.
Was he being rude to you?
I am going to be a little late.
She is very amicable.
They are heading home on Tuesday.
It was a magical experience.
You were so close to winning the tournament.

It’s important to note that the present simple tense forms of to be are often contracted, especially in casual speech and writing.

I’m going to the store. = I am going to the store.
They’re in first place. = They are in first place.
She’s joining us today. = She is joining us today.
Quick Note

Across English dialects, the rules of the verb to be may be different from those of standard English. For example, you may hear someone say “that ain’t going to happen today” (instead of that is not going to happen today), or “he be acting silly” (instead of he is acting silly). Using these forms of the verb to be is mostly found in colloquial use. However, in most professional and academic settings, it’s best to follow the standard English rules of the verb to be.


How to Use the Verb “To Be” Properly

Remember, adding “not” after any form of the verb to be makes it a negative. For example:

I’m (I am) not attending this year’s business luncheon.
He wasn’t (was not) happy with the yearly report.
You aren’t (are not) going by yourself, are you?
Keep in Mind

The forms of to be can also be used as auxiliary verbs (a verb that helps the main verb express it’s tense, mood, or voice). Be as an auxiliary verb can be used in passive sentences (e.g., I was given a new laptop for my birthday.), and in progressive sentences (e.g., They are studying for tomorrow’s test.).

Don’t be frustrated if you sometimes get the forms of to be wrong. After all, learning all of its eight forms is tricky—regardless if you’re a native speaker or English language learner. That’s why it’s a good idea to use LanguageTool to make sure all your writing is grammatically sound. Additionally, this easy-to-use writing assistant also checks for spelling errors and offers stylistic improvements. It is an astonishing tool to use to make sure your writing is flawless. You are not going to regret trying it out.


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