English grammar

Module 3, Verbs: Types, Tenses, and Moods, Lesson 14:

The Verb To Be

English grammar

In this lesson you'll learn that to be is used as either a linking or helping verb. Since to be is an irregular verb, let's do a quick review of its forms before diving into the material.

To Be: Present and Past Tenses
Person and Number Present Past
First person singular (I) am was
First person plural (we) are were
Second person singular or plural (you) are were
Third person singular (he, she, it) is was
Third person plural (they) are were
To Be: Present and Past Participles
Present Past
being been

To Be As a Linking Verb

To be is considered a linking verb when it's used to describe traits, characteristics, emotions, and states of being. It connects the main noun (or subject) to a describing word, such as an adjective or another noun.

Traits and Characteristics

Daphne is very kind.
Is links the noun Daphne and the adjective kind.

My grandfather was a doctor.
Was links the noun grandfather and the describing noun doctor.


Lucy and Olivia are excited because their parents bought them a puppy for Christmas.
Are links Lucy and Olivia to the adjective excited.

States of Being

If the word that follows to be answers the questions when or where, it's describing a state of being.

Wendell is here today.
Is links Wendell to a state of being (here).

The party was at 7 o'clock.
In this example, was links party to the time.

When you ask a question, to be comes at the beginning of the sentence and is separated from the describing word.

Is Wendell here today?

Normally, words and phrases that answer questions like when and where are considered adverbs, but when used with linking verbs, they act like adjectives. These words and phrases are often referred to as locatives or adverbial complements.

To Be As a Helping Verb

In Lesson 4, you learned that helping verbs are used with main verbs to help complete the main verb's meaning. To be is a helping verb when used in the progressive tenses or the passive voice.

To Be and the Progressive Tenses

The verb to be is often used together with a present participle (verb ending in -ing) to express an ongoing action. (Visit Lesson 8 to review.)

Irena is listening to the teacher.
Is helps show that listening is an ongoing action happening in the present.

The squirrels were scampering across the lawn.
Were helps show that scampering was an ongoing action that occurred in the past.

My older brother has been writing a novel for the past five years.
Been helps to show that writing is an ongoing action. (Has is also a helping verb in this sentence, but it's helping the verb to be.)

To Be and the Passive Voice

The passive voice is formed with the verb to be plus a past participle. People use passive voice when they want to put emphasis on the action instead of the subject, or when they're not sure who's doing the action.

President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
The focus of this sentence is on the president's assassination, not on the person who assassinated him.

My wallet and phone were stolen at the beach.
We don't know who stole the wallet and phone, and we want to emphasize the action of stealing instead of the person who did the stealing.

Participles vs. Participial Adjectives

You already know that to be often acts as a helping verb before a present or past participle. However, some participles can also be used as adjectives (describing words). When to be is used with these adjectives, it is a linking verb, not a helping verb. If you're not sure if to be is a linking or helping verb in a particular sentence, just think about whether the participle is a description or an action. Let's take a look at some examples, starting with present participial adjectives versus present participles in the progressive tenses.

Present Participial Adjectives vs. Progressive Tenses
(Adjective ending in -ing)
(Main action verb ending in -ing)
The teacher's voice was soothing.
(Soothing describes the teacher's voice.)
Irena is listening to the teacher.
(Listening is an action, not a description.)
My brother's new novel is fascinating.
(Fascinating describes the novel.)
My brother has been writing a novel.
(Writing is an action, not a description.)

Now let's look at the difference between past participial adjectives and past participles in the passive voice.

Past Participial Adjectives vs. Passive Voice
(Adjective ending in -ed, -en, -t, etc.)
(Action verb ending in -ed, -en, -t, etc.)
Lucy and Olivia are excited to have a new puppy
(Excited describes how the girls feel.)
Lucy and Olivia's shoes were destroyed by their new puppy.
(Destroyed is an action. It tells us what the puppy did.)
I am interested in remodeling the kitchen.
(Interested describes my state of mind.)
I was startled by a loud noise in the kitchen.
(Startled is an action. It tells us what the loud noise did to me.)

Practice What You've Learned

English grammar
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In each of the following sentences, determine whether to be is a linking or helping verb.
Sammi and Laci were best friends until they had a fight.
linking / helping
Was Mason on time today?
linking / helping
The car was smashed by the falling tree.
linking / helping
Well, you are very cheerful today!
linking / helping
Your grandparents will be staying with us for the summer.
linking / helping
We were walking down the street when we saw the hawk.
linking / helping
The wedding will be in the park.
linking / helping
A fire in the fireplace is comforting on a cold night.
linking / helping
Our cat was stalking a mouse last night.
linking / helping
The lost dog was in our backyard.
linking / helping