A discussion answer to the question "what is the verb 'to be'?"

After 30 years in newspapers and five as an ESOL teacher I don't often have difficulty explaining anything to a class. The verb to be is an exception. It doesn't lend itself to definitions like every other verb. I find after teaching the singulars, plurals and tenses most students still regard them as separate pieces of vocabulary. The concept of them all performing similar functions as part of a family doesn't stick, and a way to explain that has me flummoxed. Is there a dusty answer to the question 'what's the verb to be'?

Brian O'Flaherty

There is an answer, although I’m not sure how 'dusty' it is. First of all, you’re right, the verb to be is unique in a number of ways. For a start, it has the most forms of any verb in English: eight in all – be, being, been, am, is, are, were, was. (Compare this to the four of have and the three of set, say). Together, these eight forms constitute the most frequent verb family in English. There are also some curious irregularities of form, as in the question tag aren’t I? rather than amn’t I? (in Standard English at least), and the use of do and don’t in the imperative (Do be seated; Don’t be stupid) but not in the indicative (*I don’t be stupid). (The asterisk indicates a non-standard form).This use of don’t overflows into if-clauses in spoken language, as in If you don’t be quiet, I’ll send you to your room! The verb to be is also subject to a great deal of regional and social variation. Even within England the following forms are used in the first person singular: am, are, be, been, is. And what is called ‘invariant be’ to talk about temporary states is a distinctive feature of American Black English, as in she be sad and how you be doing? (Be is omitted completely when talking about permanent states: she a nice person).But what IS the verb to be? It is two things, as this mini-corpus of film titles should demonstrate:


Lexical verbs

It’s a wonderful life.

Tender is the night.

I was a teenage werewolf.

Let there be light.

*Chan is missing.

I’m all right Jack.

What’s up, Doc?

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I am Sam.

Auxiliary verbs

The whole town’s talking.

How the west was won.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

*A star is born.

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.

In the first group, be (and its derived forms) are lexical verbs – that is, the verb to be is the main verb of its clause. It links two ideas: it is therefore classified as a linking verb. (Other linking verbs are seem and appear). Linking verbs link the subject of the clauses with its complement by, for example, identifying a quality of the subject, as in I’m all right or Tender is the night. Because be often identifies a state rather than event (It’s a wonderful life; I am Sam), it is classified as a stative verb. But, less commonly, it can be used, in the continuous form, to identify changing or temporary situations, as in You’re being naughty.


In the second group of film titles above, the verb be (and its derived forms) is not the main verb of its clause, but instead functions as an auxiliary verb. That is, it has an entirely grammatical function. (Only two other verbs - do and have - can be both lexical and auxiliary verbs). As an auxiliary, the forms of be are used to form continuous verb phrases (e.g. The whole town’s talking) and passive ones (How the west was won). It is therefore a very important grammatical tool, and this in part accounts for its frequency: in every 50 running words of any text you are likely to come across a was or a be or an are at least once or twice.


*Actually, the distinction between lexical and grammatical uses of be is less black-and-white than all this may indicate. Look at the following examples:


Chan is missing


Is this a case of subject + main verb + complement, or a case of subject + auxiliary verb + main verb? (Probably the former).


What about A star is born? (Probably the latter).


This blurring at the margins of lexis and grammar may attest to a common ‘ancestor’ – a verb to be that was once purely lexical but has, over time, become ‘grammaticised’. Nevertheless, for teaching purposes, the distinction between be’s grammatical and lexical functions is a useful – even necessary – one. It should certainly help our teacher whose students still regard the different forms of be as separate items of vocabulary. One simple exercise might be to give them the film titles above – jumbled up – and ask them to sort them into two groups.