MooT Question Icon
The English copula to be has eight forms: be, am, and is are three of them. What are the other five?




Etymology, Etymology, and more Etymology
as well as grammar, usage, euphemism, slang, jargon, semantics, linguistics, neologism, idiom, cant, and argot.


A picture of a moot game

The critically-acclaimed board game MooT
consists of tough questions about the nuances of the English language.
To join our mailing list and get
free brain-twisting MooT questions sent to you irregularly,
enter your email address and then press submit.

E-Mail address:




Back to home page



Answer: are, being, was, were, and been

Most English verbs have just four forms - e.g., start, starts, starting, started. Verbs like these are called weak verbs. There is also a large set of verbs that have five forms - e.g., begin, begins, beginning, began, begun. These are called strong verbs.

Feedback


Hi, I enjoy the moot questions and I also think that your new project will be a very useful resource for students. My only reservation about it so far is that it tends to present English as a unitary whole in which rights and wrongs can be unprobematically assigned to particular forms. I don't think this is in line with a consensus view among linguists and (particularly) sociolinguists - David Crystal's numerous books on the subject argue quite strongly against this line of thinking for instance. I don't think you would need to change very much in your questions or other resources if you wanted to accommodate this critical viewpoint. If anything, it would enrich your resource.

This week's question is an example of what I'm getting at. The English copula "to be" has eight forms: be, am, and is are three of them. What are the other five?

You state that the answer is: are, being, was, were, and been this is no doubt true for the vast majority of English speakers. But not for instance for my father, whose English dialect included the form 'be's' as a third person habitual contrasted with 'is' which was restricted to stative meanings. (He also had 'does be' as an intensified form of this meaning and 'doesn't be' as the negative. It was clearly a fully functioning part of his basic English grammar.)

But your answer would suggest that this component of my father's grammar was wrong. And yet, very similar variations can be found in nearly every other area of English grammar and vocabulary. I'm not suggesting that you need to include or even refer to them in your answers, but I feel that at least implicitly such inherent variability needs to be acknowledged by avoiding giving the impression that something is true of English when it is in fact true only of certain varieties of English (even if these varieties enjoy a high status). Otherwise, if systematic sociolinguistic differences are interpreted as error, I feel that we are outside the realm of linguistic facts.

Having said that, please don't stop sending me MOOT!!!

regards, Martin
Martin McMorrow
______________________________________________________________

I suppose your question implies this already, but "to be" is also a form of the verb "to be." "Duh!," you might say in response to this circular assertion, but what I mean is this. When a verb has another verb as a complement, that complement can sometimes be in gerund (-ing) form (e.g. "I like being pedantic"); sometimes in base form ("If you'll let me be pedantic for a moment..."; and sometimes in full infinitive form ("I like to be pedantic"). All three are forms of the verb "be" in the sense that they are realizations in discourse of the "pure," (but sidembodied) verb "be." Now there's a piss-you-off type Moot question: "Is 'to be' a form of the verb'to be'?" Crawl into Plato's cave and contemplate that one.
Jack Ognistoff
______________________________________________________________

And then there are the verbs with only three forms: bid, hit, put, set, and ten more. How many forms does the verb read have? And what verbs are the same in the present (and infinitive) and the past perfect? (There are two or three of them). And finally: what verb (there is just the one) is the same in the present (and infinitive) and in the past (preterite) but not in the past perfect? I could add some information to your dictionary about runic script if you are interested (no charge).
Niels Hovmoller, Stockholm, Sweden
______________________________________________________________

Re Martin's comments: Your point is well taken that language can't be reduced to a "unitary whole." For the purposes of a game, however, the unitary whole is a necessary fiction, and "standard" English--admittedly not necessarily better or worse than any other English-- must be the arbiter, or referee, if you will. Games are by nature binary: right, wrong; win,lose. On another note, standard English also has some examples of the verb "be" combined with the auxiliary "do." These are, however, restricted to the imperative voice, and might be explained by the imperative form weakening the stative meaning of "be" and imbuing it with a more active, volitional meaning: "Don't be a fool!" or "Do be on time tomorrow." In both cases, the speaker assumes that the other person has the choice to be or not to be.
Jack Ognistoff
______________________________________________________________

Further to the comments by some of your readers I'd like to add a couple more forms of the verb 'be', although they are archaic.

These are 'art', and 'wert', the forms of the second person singular, present and past respectively. These forms are to be seen, for example, in the King James's Version of the Bible, and in the earlier versions of the Lord's Prayer: (Our Father, which art in Heaven...)still used by many traditional Christians, especially in the UK.

There are probably still other forms, but I don't have access to a good dictionary here in Prague, from where I'm writing. 'Be-eth', perhaps, for the third person singular.

We may also note the subjunctive forms, although in writing they are the same as the ones you give in your answer - e.g. 'were', as in 'If I were you', and 'be', as in 'Lest it be thought', which are still in modern use, especially in formal written English.
roger cooper
______________________________________________________________

Copyright 1998-2009 Blair Arts Ltd. All rights reserved.