The Forms of “To Be”

The Greek sea god, Proteus, was (like the sea) capable of changing form in an instant. In order to get any decent information out of him, you had to grab him and hold on tight while he went through his various forms — lion, wild boar, snake, tree, running stream — it wasn't easy. The verb “To be” is said to be the most protean of the English language, constantly changing form, sometimes without much of a discernible pattern. Considering that we use it so often, it is really too bad that the verb “To be” has to be the most irregular, slippery verb in the language.

Present Tense
I amWe are
You areYou are
He/She/It isThey are

Past Tense
I wasWe were
You wereYou were
He/She/It wasThey were

Perfect Form (past participle)
I have been, etc.
Progressive Form (present participle)
I am being, etc.

We must choose carefully among these various forms when selecting the proper verb to go with our subject. Singular subjects require singular verbs; plural subjects require plural verbs. That's usually an easy matter. We wouldn't write “The troops was moving to the border.” But some sentences require closer attention. Do we write “The majority of students is (or are) voting against the referendum"? Review carefully the material in our section on Subject-Verb Agreement, and notice how often the choices we make require a familiarity with these forms of the “To be” verb.

Simple Questions

We create simple yes/no questions by inverting the order of subject and the “To be” verb.

The same inversion takes place when “To be” is combined with verbs in the progressive:

The Linking and Existential 'To Be'

The verb “To be” most frequently works in conjunction with another verb: “He is playing the piano,” “She will be arriving this afternoon.” Occasionally, though, the verb will stand by itself, alone, in a sentence. This is especially true in simple, brief answers to questions.

“Who's going to the movies with me?”
“I am

“Who's responsible for this mess in the bathroom?”
“She is.”

In sentences such as these, the subject usually receives the intonation stress and the voice falls off on the verb.

An auxiliary can be combined with the base form of “To be” to provide simple answers to questions that use forms of “to be.”

“Is Heitor in class this morning?”
“Well, he might be.”

“Is anyone helping Heitor with his homework?”
“I'm not sure. Suzanne could be.”

The verb “To be” also acts as a linking verb, joining the sentence subject with a subject complement or adjective complement. A linking verb provides no action to a sentence: the subject complement re-identifies the subject; the adjective complement modifies it. (For further information and additional vocabulary in dealing with linking verbs, visit the hyperlinks in this paragraph.)

In Passive Constructions

A form of the verb “To be” is combined with a past participle to form the passive. Passive verb constructions are useful when the subject of an action is not as important as what the subject did (the action of the sentence) or when the subject is unknown. For instance, the police might report that “The professor was assaulted in the hallways” because they do not know the perpetrator of this heinous crime. In technical writing, where the process is more important than who is doing the activity, we might report that “Three liters of fluid is filtered through porous glass beads.” Regardless of the verb's purpose, only the auxiliary form of “To be” changes; the participle stays the same. The “To be” will change form to indicate whether the subject is singular or plural:

Notice how the information about who did the action is frequently found in a prepositional phrase beginning with “by.” Passive constructions do not always include this information:

The “To be” will also change to indicate the time of the action and the aspect of the verb (simple, progressive, perfect).

The “To be” verb can be combined with other modal forms (along with the past participle of the main verb) to convey other kinds of information. See the section on modals for the various kinds of information conveyed by modals (advisability, predictability, guessing, necessity, possibility, etc.).

Visit our section on the passive for advice on when to use the passive and when to substitute more active verb forms.

When “To be” verbs are combined with modal forms in this manner, the construction is called a phrasal modal. Here are some more examples:

Sometimes it is difficult to say whether a “To be” verb is linking a subject to a participle or if the verb and participle are part of a passive construction. In “Certain behaviors are allowed,” is "are” linking “behaviors” to "allowed" (a participle acting as a predicate adjective) or is “are allowed” a passive verb? In the final analysis, it probably doesn't matter, but the distinction leads to some interesting variations. Consider the difference between

In the first sentence, the participle “welcomed” (in this passive construction) emphasizes the action of welcoming: the smiles, the hearty greetings, the slaps on the back. In the second sentence, the predicate adjective “welcome” describes the feeling that the jurists must have had upon being so welcomed.

Progressive Forms

Click HERE for a thorough discussion of the progressive verb forms. Progressive forms include a form of “To be” plus a present participle (an -ing ending). Frodesen and Eyring** categorize progressive verbs according to the following functions:

Tag Questions with “To Be”

Click HERE for a description of tag questions, a device by which a statement is turned into a question. When we use “To be” verbs in a tag question, the basic formula follows: the verb is combined with a pronoun and sometimes with not (usually in a contracted form). Positive statements are followed by negative tags; negative statements by positive tags.

(Don't try to make sense of this last construction. It is acceptable. In very formal text, you might write “am I not” instead. “Ain't” is not regarded as acceptable except in text attempting to duplicate substandard speech.)

Order with Adverbs

Notice that adverbs of frequency normally appear after forms of the verb “To be”:

Notice that the adverb still appears after “To be” verbs but before other main verbs:

An adverb can be interposed between the infinitive “To be” and a participle, as in the following sentences. The fear of splitting an infinitive is without grounds in this construction.

Unnecessary Uses of “To Be”

Even a casual review of your writing can reveal uses of the verb “To be” that are unnecessary and that can be removed to good effect. In a way, the “To be” verb doesn't do much for you — it just sits there — and text that is too heavily sprinkled with “To be” verbs can feel sodden, static. This is especially true of “To be” verbs tucked into dependent clauses (particularly dependent clauses using a passive construction) and expletive constructions (“There is,” “There were,” “it is,” etc.). Note that the relative pronoun frequently disappears as well when we revise these sentences.

An expletive construction, along with its attendant “To be” verb, can often be eliminated to good effect. Simply omit the construction, find the real subject of the sentence, and allow it to do some real work with a real verb.

On the other hand, expletive constructions do give us an interesting means of setting out or organizing the work of a subsequent paragraph:

Fuzzy Verb Phrases with "Be"

The following information is taken, with permission, from Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. Copyright 2003. Published by Oxford University Press.

Verb phrases containing "be" verbs are often merely roundabout ways of saying something better said with a simple verb. Thus "be supportive of" for "support" is verbose.

The following circumlocutory uses of "be" verbs are common in stuffy writing. The simple verb (in parentheses) is usually better:

be abusive of (abuse)
be applicable to (apply to)
be benefited by (benefit from)
be derived from (derive from)
be desirous of (desire or want)
be determinative of (determine)
be in agreement (agree)
be in attendance (attend)
be indicative of (indicate)
be in error (err)
be in existence (exist)
be influential on (influence)
be in possession of (possess)
be in receipt of (have received)
be in violation of (violate)
be operative (operate)
be productive of (produce)
be promotive of (promote)
be supportive of (support)

Many such wordy constructions are more naturally phrased in the present-tense singular: "is able to" ("can"), "is authorized to" ("may"), "is binding upon" ("binds"), "is empowered to" ("may"), "is unable to" ("cannot").

Stative and Dynamic Forms

Martha Kolln* suggests that we think of the difference between stative and dynamic in terms of “willed” and “nonwilled” qualities. Consider the difference between a so-called dynamic adjective (or subject complement) and a stative adjective (or subject complement): “I am silly” OR “I am being silly” versus “I am tall.” I have chosen to be silly; I have no choice about being tall. Thus “Tall” is said to be a stative (or an “inert”) quality, and we cannot say “I am being tall”; “silly,” on the other hand, is dynamic so we can use progressive verb forms in conjunction with that quality.

Two plus two equals four. Equals is inert, stative, and cannot take the progressive; there is no choice, no volition in the matter. (We would not say, “Two plus two is equaling four.”) In the same way, nouns and pronouns can be said to exhibit willed and unwilled characteristics. Thus, “She is being a good worker” (because she chooses to be so), but we would say “She is (not is being) an Olympic athlete” (because once she becomes an athlete she no longer “wills it”). For further definition of this interesting distinction, click HERE.

*Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

**The section on uses of “To be” in passive constructions is based on information in Grammar Dimensions: Form, Meaning, and Use, #3 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring. Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997. Examples are our own.