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Unit 11

Be verbs and its usage

Objective: To learn about Be verbs in English.

Be verbs

The following verbs are called as Be verbs in English.
Am, is, are (Present)
Was, were (Past)
Will be (Future)

They are used in the following situations:


(used with modals, after "to") (imperative form)
Is, Are, Am

(present tense)
's 're 'm

(in contractions)

(past tense)

(past tense)

(past participle)

(-ing form, gerund)
Examples of usage:
I will be there tomorrow.

(use "be" after modals)
I might be late.

He wants to be an astronaut.

(use "be" with "to" in the infinitive)
"To be or not to be;" that is the question.

Be nice now.

(use "be" in the imperative)
Please be quiet.

Bill is sick today.

(use "is" with he/she/it in the present tense)
She is a doctor.

It is not time yet.

She is not here right now.

(use 's as the contracted form of "is")
She isn't here right now.

She's not here right now.

Mr. Lee is eating dinner right now.

(use "is" with he/she/it in the present continuous)
She's talking on the phone.

Maggie's leaving tomorrow.

The dog is running down the street.

(use "is" with he/she/it in the present continuous)

I am a lawyer.

(use "am" with I in the present tense)
I am not a liar.

I'm happy to be here.

(use 'm as the contracted form of "am")
I'm not going anywhere.

We are at the office.

(Use "are" with they/we/you in the present tense.)
Jack and Jill are over the hill.

You are welcome anytime.

They're in the building.

(Use 're as the contracted form of "are")
We're on the way.

You're kidding!

We are working hard.

(Use "are" with you/we/they in the pres. continuous.)
They are hardly working.

The boys are waiting to see her.

We are not paying for the extra drink.

(The negative "are not" can be contracted two ways)
We're not paying for the extra drink.

We aren't paying for the extra drink.

I was here yesterday, so was Tina.

(Use "was" with I/ he/she and it in the past tense.)
It was a really nice trip.

Henry was at the dentist's for two hours.

We were in Spain last week.

(Use "were" with you/we/they in the past tense.)
The Smiths were on vacation.

You were the only one here.

They weren't at work yesterday.

(The only contracted forms are wasn't/weren't.)
Jared wasn't here either.

I wasn't aware of that.

Rachel has been there before.

(Use "been" after have/has/had.)
I've never been to Maine.

We have been living here since June.

You should have been paying attention.

Being a good sport is important.

(Use "being" when a gerund form of be is required.)
Being on time is essential.

I was being a jerk.

(Use "being" when "be" is used in the continuous.)

Simple Questions
We create simple yes/no questions by inverting the order of subject and the To be verb.
Is your brother taller than you?
Am I bothering you?
Were they embarrassed by the comedian?
The same inversion takes place when To be is combined with verbs in the progressive:
Am I working with you today?
Is it snowing in the mountains?
Were your children driving home this weekend?

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.)
Professor Moriber is the Director of Online Learning.
Our trip to Yellowstone was fantastic!
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:
The foundation is supported by enormous floating caissons that keep it from sinking into the
They were constructed by workers half submerged in the murky waters.
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:
Wooden caissons were used until fiberglass structures were developed in the 1950s.
Caissons were also designed to function under water in the construction of bridges.
The To be will also change to indicate the time of the action and the aspect of the verb (simple,
progressive, perfect).
Water is pumped out of the caisson to create an underwater work chamber. (simple present)
Some caissons were moved to other construction sites. (simple past)
While the water was being pumped out, workers would enter the top of the waterproof chamber.
(past progressive)
Many other uses of caisson construction have been explored. (present perfect)
Caissons had been used by the ancient Romans. (past perfect)
Other uses will be found. (future)
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.).
The wall joints may be weakened if the caissons can't be rebuilt.
Perhaps the caissons should be replaced; I think they ought to be.
These ancient, sturdy structures might have been rotted by constant exposure to water.
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:
Rosario was able to finish her degree by taking online courses.
She wasn't supposed to graduate until next year.
She will be allowed to participate in commencement, though.
She is about to apply to several graduate programs.
She is going to attend the state university next fall.
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
The jurists were welcomed.
The jurists were welcome.
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.
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.
Robert Frost was America's favorite poet, wasn't he?
He wasn't widely accepted in this country at first, was he?
You were going to skip this poem, weren't you?
There were several typographical errors in this anthology, weren't there? (Be careful here. It's not
weren't they.)
I am not a very good reader, am I?
I'm a better reader than you, aren't I?
(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

Order with Adverbs
Notice that adverbs of frequency normally appear after forms of the verb To be:
As a student, he was seldom happy.
Arturo is always first in line.
They were never on time.
Notice that the adverb still appears after To be verbs but before other main verbs:
My brother-in-law still works for the bank.
He is still a teller after twenty years.
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.
This medicine has to be carefully administered.
She turned out to be secretly married to her childhood sweetheart.

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.
He wanted a medication that was prescribed by a physician.
She recognized the officer who was chasing the crook.
Anyone who is willing to work hard will succeed in this program.
It was Alberto who told the principal about the students' prank. (Notice that the it was brought
special emphasis to Alberto, an emphasis that is somewhat lost by this change.)
A customer who is pleased is sure to return. A pleased customer is sure to return. (When we
eliminate the To be and the relative pronoun, we will also have to reposition the predicate
adjective to a pre-noun position.)
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.
There were some excellent results to this experiment in social work. (Change to . . . .) This
experiment in social work resulted in . . . .
There is one explanation for this story's ending in Faulkner's diary. (Change to . . . .) Faulkner's
diary gives us one explanation for this story's ending.
On the other hand, expletive constructions do give us an interesting means of setting out or organizing
the work of a subsequent paragraph:
There were four underlying causes of World War I. First, . . . .

Fuzzy Verb Phrases with "Be"
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 in existence (exist)
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 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"