How to use the verb to be in English (rules & examples)

How to use the verb to be in English




Feel free to leave a comment if you find any errors or if you have any suggestions to make to improve this lesson.

Be in the present simple tense

Affirmative form

Construction: subject + be

  • I am
  • you are
  • he / she / it is
  • we are
  • you are
  • they are

The contracted form is very common (especially orally):

  • I am → I’m
  • you are → you’re
  • he is → he’s
  • she is → she’s
  • it is → it’s
  • we are → we’re
  • you are → you’re
  • they are → they’re

Negative form

Simply add NOT after the verb:

  • I am not
  • you are not
  • he / she / it is not
  • we are not
  • you are not
  • they are not

The negative form can be contracted:

  • I am not → I’m not
  • he is not → he isn’t OR he’s not
  • you are not → you aren’t OR you’re not

Interrogative form

To ask a question, it’s simple: you have to reverse the subject and be. The verb Be is then placed at the beggining of the sentence:

  • am I making myself clear?
  • are you happy?
  • is he ok?
  • are we arrived yet?

Be in preterite (= past simple)

Affirmative form

  • I was
  • you were
  • he / she / it was
  • we were
  • you were

Be careful, there is no contracted form.

Negative form

  • I was not
  • you were not
  • he / she / it was not
  • we were not
  • you were not
  • they were not

The negative form can be contracted:

  • was not → wasn’t
  • were not → weren’t

Interrogative form

Just like the present, be is placed at the beginning of the sentence, but at the preterit tense (was or were):

  • was I?
  • were you?
  • was he / she / it?
  • were we?
  • were vou?
  • were they?

How to use the verb to be

In English, the verb BE can be either verb or auxiliary.

As a main verb:

With a name, to talk about a characteristic:

  • Sam is very tall.
  • My mother was a teacher.
  • This cake is very tasty.
  • The children were good.
  • Paul and his wife are from New York.
  • The flowers are on the table.

As an auxiliary:

To make the continuous form with -ing:

  • They are eating 
  • It had been raining for hours.

To do the passive voice:

  • It’s broken
  • This car was made in Japan.


Be has a lot of different meanings:

To talk about a state:

  • I’m hungry / thirsty  
  • I’m lucky 

To say the age of someone:

  • I’m 24. 
  • He is 17. 
  • She is my age. 

To talk about the weather

  • It’s hot / it’s cold today. 

To talk about size:

  • She is the same height as her husband. 
  • He is 6 feet tall. 
  • How tall are you?  (NOT How high are you?)
  • That tree is about 20 metres high. 

⚠️ to talk about weight, do not use to be but the verb weigh: He weighs 70 kilos. (He is 70 kilos. = ❌)

To indicate a distance:

  • It’s 5 km to the next town. 

⚠️ There are often mistakes with Born

  • I was born (NOT: I am born)
  • He was born (NOT: He is born)
  • They were born (NOT: They are born)

Question tags with TO BE

The following formula must be used: be (contracted if negative) + personal pronoun.

Positive sentences are followed by a negative question tag, and negative sentences by a positive question tag:

  • You are Paul, aren’t you?
  • Miguel is from Spain, isn’t he?
  • He isn’t coming, is he?
  • Linda was tired, wasn’t she?
  • This isn’t working, is it?
  • We weren’t late, were we?

Phrasal verbs with BE

There are many of them! Here are some of the most common ones:

be about to (= be ready to do something)

  • The bus is about to leave
  • He was about to say something.

be off (= to leave / to stop working)

  • Bye guys, I’m off!
  • Make sure the lights are off.

be out (= be absent from home or work)

  • You can’t talk to my boss. He’s out.

be out of (= to run out of something)

  • I am out of flour, I can’t make pancakes.
  • He’s been out of work for a long time. 

be up (= be awake / increase / expire)

  • It’s ten o’clock and Tina isn’t up yet.
  • The price of bread is up again this week.
  • The warranty on the camera is up. If it breaks now we’ll have to pay for it.

be up to (= planning a bad move, something bad)

  • What are those children up to now?


Be + going to express an intention in the future, or a certainty:

  • We’re going to have a party.
  • He’s going to wash the car.
  • I think it’s going to rain.


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