Grammar

Confused About the Verb “To Be”? Here Is Some Help!

“To be” is the most frequently used verb in the English language. However, it doesn’t follow a regular, predictable pattern. This can be a challenge for non-native speakers who are trying to learn the various forms of “to be”. In this article, we will look at some of the different forms of “to be” and how they are used.

What does “to be” mean?

“To be” is a non-action verb. Instead of telling us about what someone is doing, it tells us about their identity, their existence, their condition, or their location.

“To be” can be used for things as well as for people. If that seems confusing right now, keep reading. It should get easier once you see some example sentences.

Let’s start with the simple forms…

The root form of “to be” is “be”. However, because “to be” doesn’t follow a typical, regular pattern, “be” isn’t part of either the simple present or simple past tense forms of the verb. They are totally different!

In the table below, you will see the simple past and present tense forms of the verb “to be”, along with some example sentences.

SubjectSimple Present TenseSimple Past TenseExamples
II amI wasI am a student at Ivy University right now.

I was in high school last year.
YouYou areYou wereYou are the tallest boy in your class.

You were very small when you were born.
He/she/itHe/she/it isHe/she/it was
The school bus is late almost every day.

The school bus was late yesterday because of the snowstorm.

WeWe areWe wereWe are from Seoul.

Liz and I were in Seoul last year for a convention.
TheyThey areThey wereTaylor and Michael are hungry, so they want to eat now.

They were hungry after the long flight, so they ate dinner at one of the restaurants at the airport.

Present and past continuous tenses

The present and past continuous tenses are used when we want to show some type of ongoing action or situation. Look at the table above and find your subject (I, you, he/she/it, we, they). Then decide if you are writing about something that was happening in the past or something that is happening now. Once you have that information, here is how you put it all together:

Subject + Simple form of “to be” (either past or present) + the -ing form of another verb

Let’s look at some examples:

I am washing my clothes right now, so I can’t go to the store with you.

My company was hiring developers last month, but not now.

The children are baking cookies for the class party, so I am staying in the kitchen with them.

A few weeks ago, they were flying to Tokyo when the plane made an emergency landing.

Peter is playing Hamlet at the Shakespeare festival this summer.

Lola is being silly in class all the time because she wants the new boy to notice her. (Here is an example of how you can use two different forms of “to be” right next to each other in the same sentence.)

Mrs. Walters was being very generous when she made that huge donation to the children’s hospital last year. (Here is another sentence with two forms of “to be” right next to each other.)

Future tense

This one is easy! You start with your subject, followed by “will”, followed by the root form of another verb.

Muhammed will finish the spreadsheet tomorrow.

We will paint the garage sometime this summer.

At the end of the semester, you will take the exam. (Note how this sentence begins with a dependent clause. Then it follows the same pattern as the earlier sentences in this section once the subject is introduced after the comma.)

Greg will be in Mr. Khan’s class next semester. (Here is another instance where you can use two different forms of “to be” right next to each other in the same sentence.)

Present and past perfect tenses

The perfect tenses of verbs are the ones that are used with different forms of “to have”. The present perfect tense is used when you are writing about something that started in the past, but it is still affecting the situation right now. The past perfect tense is used for situations that took place in the past before other events that also took place in the past.

Fortunately, “been” is the form of “to be” that we use for both the present and past perfect tense. As you can see in the table below, the form of “to have” changes, but “been” is used across the board.

SubjectPresent Perfect TensePast Perfect TenseExamples
II have beenI had beenI have been a teacher for eight years.

I had been a teacher for twelve years when I was promoted to headmaster.

YouYou have beenYou had beenYou have been a loyal employee ever since you started working here.

I wish you had been at the company when Kathy worked here.
He/she/itHe/she/it has beenHe/she/it had beenAshley has been a single mother for many years.

Tina had been a single mother for many years, but then she got married.
WeWe have beenWe had beenWe have been in Colombia for six years.

We had been in Paraguay for four years when we decided to move to Argentina.
TheyThey have beenThey had beenThe band members have been practicing in the garage all day.

The band members had been practicing in the garage when the police showed up and told them their music was too loud.

Although “to be” isn’t easy to learn, hopefully the tables and examples above will help you sort through some of the confusion. If you want to check and make sure you are using “to be” correctly, click the blue box below. Our TextRanch editors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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2 Replies to Confused About the Verb “To Be”? Here Is Some Help!

  1. Hi,
    what about time markers such as last month, a few weeks ago? I always thought that these markers were for Past Simple only. But you used them with Past Continuous. Can you please explain that?

    1. Time markers are sometimes used in the past continuous when the sentence is focused on somebody who was doing something in the past, but then they were interrupted. “I was picking up the kids at school last week when the car broke down.”

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