To Be

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To Be :

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.

  • 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!

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