Learn English Grammar: The verb ‘BE’

This post looks at the verb ‘to be’. It is an irregular verb.  It is different to regular verbs and learners will need to learn the different forms.

This article looks at:

1: The verb ‘to be’ in present and past simple and continuous sentences.

2: The verb ‘to be’ when used in passive sentences.

3: The verb ‘to be’ in the subjunctive.

4: Be in the continuous form ‘being’.

Present tenses: to be

Present Simple and Continuous

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

 

I am

You are

He/She/It is

We/They are

 

 

I am not

You are not

He/She/It is not

We/They are not

 

I’m not

You’re not

(You aren’t is also possible)

He/She/It isn’t

We/They aren’t

 

Examples:

I am not very happy with my results.  I am going to work harder next time.

You are a good friend!

She is a doctor.

He is not in the office today. He is working from home this week.

The clock’s broken.  It’s not working. (note: The clock IS broken. The apostrophe shows there is a letter missing. This is found more in

spoken and informal English)

Some friends are visiting us.  They are from Egypt.

 

 

Present Simple and Continuous

 

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

 

I am

You are

He/She/It is

We/They are

 

 

I am not

You are not

He/She/It is not

We/They are not

 

I’m not

You’re not

(You aren’t is also possible)

He/She/It isn’t

We/They aren’t

 

 

Present Simple and Continuous

QUESTIONS

 

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

 

Am I?

Are you?

Is he/she/it?

Are we/they?

 

 

Am I not?

Are you not?

Is he/she/it not?

Are we/they not?

 

Aren’t you?

Isn’t he/she/it?

Aren’t you?

 

The form can be used in two ways to ask questions.

1: With the question form at the beginning of the sentence.

 

Am I allowed to go?

Is he happy?

Is she going to the party?

Is the clock working?

Are your friends from Italy?

Are they staying with you this week?

Are we playing tennis now?

2: The question form can come at the end.  This is a QUESTION TAG.  We use this form when we know (or think we know) the answer to our question. Important to remember here is the positive/negative parts.  If the first part is positive then the end of the sentence will be negative.

 

I’m allowed to go, aren’t I?

He’s happy, isn’t he?

She is going to the party, is she not?

The clock is working, is it not?

Your friends are from Italy, aren’t they?

We’re playing tennis now, aren’t we?

 

Vice versa, if the first part of the sentence is negative, the end of the sentence will be positive.

 

I’m not allowed to go, am I?

He isn’t happy, is he?

She isn’t going to the party, is she?

The clock isn’t working, is it?

Your friends aren’t from Italy, are they?

We’re not playing tennis now, are we?

 

Past tenses: to be

 

Present Simple and Continuous

Affirmative/positive Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

 

I was

You were

He/She/It was

We/They were

 

 

I was not

You were not

He/She/It was not

We/They were not

 

I wasn’t

You’re not

(You weren’t is also possible)

He/She/It wasn’t

We/They weren’t

 

Examples:

I was allowed to go to the concert last week.

You were a good student.

He wasn’t happy yesterday but he is better today.

She was not going to the party.  She was going to the theatre.

The clock was working yesterday.

They were from Italy.

We were not playing tennis.

 

Past Simple and Continuous

QUESTIONS

 

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

 

Was I?

Were you?

Was he/she/it?

Were we/they?

 

 

Was I not?

Were you not?

Was he/she/it not?

Were we/they not?

 

Wasn’t I?

Weren’t you?

Wasn’t he/she/it?

Weren’t you?

Examples:

Were you a good student?

Was he happy yesterday?

Were they from Italy?

Were we playing tennis? I can’t remember!

 

You were a good student, were you not?

He was happy yesterday, wasn’t he?

The clock was working yesterday, wasn’t it?

We were playing tennis, weren’t we?

 

Remember: the short forms I’m, he isn’t, we’re not etc are used in spoken English and in informal writing such as texts, messaging etc.

 

 

Past Simple and Continuous

PERFECT TENSES

 

PRESENT PERFECT

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

I have been

You have been

He/She/It has been

We/They have been

 

I have not been

You have not been

He/She/It has not been

We/They have not been

I haven’t been

You haven’t been

He/She/It hasn’t been

We/They haven’t been

 

PAST PERFECT

Affirmative/positive

Negative

(used in written/formal English)

Negative

(usually used in spoken and informal written English)

 

I had been

You had been

He/She/It had been

We/They had been

 

I had not been

You had not been

He/She/It had not been

We/They had not been

I hadn’t been

You hadn’t been

He/She/It hadn’t been

We/They hadn’t been

Examples:

I have never been to Russia.

He has been in a bad mood all day!

They have never been on a bus before.

I had never been to Russia before my husband and I visited there last year.

He had been in a bad mood all day yesterday but later he said he felt a lot better.

Before their trip to London they had never been on a bus!

 

The ‘Passive’ Be

Passive voice is used when the action is the important part of the sentence.  Usually, we do not know who or what is performing the action.

Example: My car was stolen.

I know that someone stole my car but I do not know who stole it.

Form of Passive

Subject + finite form of to be + Past Participle

Example: The house was built in 1850.

Sometimes the person or thing that performs the action is included in the sentence.  However, they or it becomes the object of the sentence.

Example: The house was built by my great-great-grandfather in 1850.

 

The Subjunctive mood

A verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. It is also found in clauses following verbs that expresses a doubt, a wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal.

These are verbs typically followed by clauses that take the subjunctive:

ask, demand, determine, insist, move, order, pray, prefer, recommend, regret, request, require, suggest, wish.

Examples:

He requested that he be put on the waiting list.

They insisted they be moved to a table away from the door.

These expressions are usually followed by the subjunctive

It is best (that)
It is crucial (that)
It is desirable (that)
It is essential (that)
It is imperative (that)
It is important (that)
It is recommended (that)
It is urgent (that)
It is vital (that)
It is a good idea (that)
It is a bad idea (that)

It is vital that they be at the meeting tomorrow.

IMPORTANT: In spoken English the subjunctive is rarely used nowadays.  Most native speakers prefer to the use the structure, ‘It is vital that they are at the meeting tomorrow.’

 

Being

We use the structure ‘being’ to describe something temporary.

The plans are being looked at by the builders. (a passive structure)

We also use ‘being’ to describe someone’s actions or behaviour that are deliberate and unusual.

Examples:

You are being very rude, stop it!

I wonder why the boss is being so nice to everyone today. He doesn’t usually bother talking to anyone.

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