v. First and third person singular past indicative was(wŭz, wŏz; wəz when unstressed) second person singular and plural and first and third person plural past indicative were(wûr) past subjunctive werepast participle been(bĭn) present participle be·ing(bēĭng) first person singular present indicative am(ăm) second person singular and plural and first and third person plural present indicative are(är) third person singular present indicative is(ĭz) present subjunctive be
1. To exist in actuality; have life or reality: I think, therefore I am.
a. To occupy a specified position: The food is on the table.
b. To remain in a certain state or situation undisturbed, untouched, or unmolested: Let the children be.
3. To take place; occur: The test was yesterday.
4. To go or come: Have you ever been to Italy? Have you been home recently?
5. Used as a copula in such senses as:
a. To equal in identity: “To be a Christian was to be a Roman” (James Bryce).
b. To have a specified significance: A is excellent, C is passing. Let n be the unknown quantity.
c. To belong to a specified class or group: The human being is a primate.
d. To have or show a specified quality or characteristic: She is witty. All humans are mortal.
e. To seem to consist or be made of: The yard is all snow. He is all bluff and no bite.
6. To belong; befall: Peace be unto you. Woe is me.
1. Used with the past participle of a transitive verb to form the passive voice: The mayoral election is held annually.
2. Used with the present participle of a verb to express a continuing action: We are working to improve housing conditions.
3. Used with the infinitive of a verb to express intention, obligation, or future action: She was to call before she left. You are to make the necessary changes.
4. Used with the past participle of certain intransitive verbs to form a perfect tense: Those days are gone. Let me know when you are finished.
[Middle English ben, from Old English bēon; see bheuə- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots. See AM1, IS, etc. for links to other Indo-European roots.]
Usage Note: Traditional grammar requires the subjective form of the pronoun in the predicate of the verb be: It is I (not me), That must be they (not them), and so forth. The rule is based on the vague notion that the complement of be is being equated with the subject of the sentence and so it should be treated like the subject and have subjective case. This reasoning is faulty because the grammatical case of a noun or pronoun is really determined by its position in the sentence, not by what it refers to, and in anything but the most formal style the complement of be takes objective case: people say It's me, not It's I. Indeed, in informal contexts the subjective pronoun can sound pretentious and even ridiculous, especially when the pronoun also functions as the object of a verb or preposition in the relative clause, as in It isn't them/they that we have in mind, where the third-person pronoun serves as both the complement of is and the object of have. In our 2016 survey, 71 percent of the Usage Panel accepted It isn't them that we have in mind, while only 53 percent accepted It isn't they that we have in mind. Following the traditional rule in such cases is more of a stylistic preference than a grammatical imperative. Fortunately, writers who wish to avoid sounding stilted but prefer not to violate the standard rule can usually revise their sentences easily enough: They are not the ones we have in mind, We have someone else in mind, and so on. See Usage Notes at I1, we.
Our Living Language In place of the inflected forms of be, such as is and are, used in Standard English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and some varieties of Southern American English may use zero copula, as in He working, or an invariant be, as in He be working, instead of the Standard English He is working. As an identifying feature of the vernacular of many African Americans, invariant be has been frequently seized on by writers and commentators trying to imitate or parody black speech. However, most imitators use it simply as a substitute for is, as in John be sitting in that chair now, without realizing that within AAVE, invariant be is used primarily for habitual or extended actions set in the present. Among African Americans the form is most commonly used by working-class speakers and young persons. Since the 1980s, younger speakers have tended to restrict the use of the form to progressive verb forms (as in He be walking), whereas their parents also use it with adjectives (as in He be nice) and expressions referring to a location (as in He be at home). Younger speakers also use invariant be more exclusively to indicate habitual action, whereas older speakers more commonly omit be forms (as in He walking) or use present tense verb forms (such as He walks), sometimes with adverbs like often or usually, to indicate habituality. · The source of invariant habitual be in AAVE is still disputed. Some linguists suggest that it represents influence from finite be in the 17th- to 19th-century English of British settlers, especially those from the southwest of England. Other linguists feel that contemporaneous Irish or Scotch-Irish immigrants may have played a larger role, since their dialects mark habitual verb forms with be and do be, as in “They be shooting and fishing out at the Forestry Lakes” (archival recordings of the Royal Irish Academy) and “Up half the night he does be” (James Joyce). But some have argued that the development of invariant be in Irish English came after its development in AAVE. Other linguists believe that habitual be in AAVE may have evolved from the habitual does be construction brought to America by Caribbean Creole slaves and migrants from the 17th century on; until very recently, the construction was still in use among Gullah speakers from coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where Barbadian and other Caribbean slaves had been well-represented in the founding populations. Still other linguists suggest that invariant be is an innovation within AAVE arising in the second half of the 20th century, essentially a response to the wide range of meanings that the English progressive tense can express. See Notes at like2, zero copula.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.