Monday, July 9, 2012

Grammar brigade: the verb "to be"

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In English, all sentences must have a verb. The most basic sentence is "I am." To be is one of the most commonly used verbs.

I am cold. You are a leviathan. That is Charlie. We are the champions. These are all sentences.

If there is no verb in a phrase, then it is not a sentence. It may be a phrase, a sentence fragment, an interjection, or several other things, but it is not a sentence.

Is it a sentence?

To be used in descriptions

The verb “to be” is commonly used for descriptions:

He is kind.
She is good at baking.
She is a good cook.
He who is king makes the laws.
They are the joy of my heart.
Life is the journey, not the destination.
It would be my pleasure.
I am cold.

Basic uses

It is conjugated as is, are, am, was, has been, and will be.

We use is, are, am, or was when we are talking about present tense progressive (see tensechart) or when we are describing a subject.

I am going to the store. (present tense progressive – something that began before the moment of speaking and continues to happen)
I was going to the palace. (past tense progressive)
I am cold. (describing the state of being: Something is something)

We use be when we are also using helping (or auxiliary) and modal verbs. This includes talking about the future progressive tense.

I will be singing when you come in. (future tense progressive)
I might be angry if you do that.
I can be a ninja for Halloween.

Is and articles

In English, only people are considered masculine or feminine (he or she). Everything else is an it, a neuter object. People may refer to their pets as he or she if the gender is known. Sometimes people will think of their boats/cars/treasured objects as male and female, but this is informal.

Articles are the, a, and an. They are used to say the number (one) of an object, and if it is a specific object (the) or a general one (a/an).

If you are describing a thing as an adjective, you will not need an article:
I am cold.
He is angry.
She is purple.
You are so cute!
It is old.

If you are describing something as a singular noun, you will need an article:
I am a cow.
You are the boss.
It was a giant.
She was like an apple. (simile- a type of comparison used in writing to show a figurative comparison. In other words, she wasn’t really an apple, but she looked like one.)

*a is for words that start with consonants. an is for words that start with vowels or sound like they start with vowels when spoken, except for “hard” u’s like in union, user, or unitard.

If you are describing something (or things) as a plural noun, you do not need an article:
We were kings.
They were like peas in a pod. (simile)
You all are crazy.

Prepositional phrases and adverbs

Prepositions tell you where or when something happened (or where it is located). Adverbs tell you how it happened. They aren’t usually considered when you’re trying to figure out whether to use is, was, are, were, am, will be, or to be.

You are under the table. (prepositional phrase: under is the preposition; the table is where. The preposition acts like adverb.)

It is frequently my fault. (frequently describes how often it is my fault. It’s an adverb, not the noun of the sentence.)

Things that act as nouns

Sometimes a word that isn’t a noun, or even a whole phrase, will be used as a noun. These have fancy terms like gerund. Basically, treat them like singular nouns. They usually do not need articles.

Flying above the trees is dangerous.
The thing that appealed to her most was going to the store on Fridays.
They were likely to run off a cliff. (Likely is an adverb; to run off a cliff acts like a noun.)
Giving to charity is the highlight of my day. (The gerund here acts like a noun.)

“He Who Is King”

Who is is a clause that describes he. This is a grammar structure called an appositive. He who is is not very common in modern English, but still sometimes used in formal papers and often in older documents you might study. Appositives, however, are still frequently used.

They look like:

Things that are blue include the sky, the water, and blueberries.
The man, who is my uncle, cannot be trusted.
The book, which is called Under the Sky, is my favorite.

Appositives further describe an object or help identify which of several objects you’re talking about. Check out my articles on That vs which, More whiches, and That. Yes, that. for more about appositives and when to use commas and that or which or who.

Basically, the idea is that something needs more identification (The car that is blue goes fast = there are cars that are not blue) or you want to describe something (I hate running, which is my mother’s favorite exercise = running is my mother’s favorite exercise, but I already have a verb in the sentence [running], so I use an extra clause to describe it).

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