Am, Is, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been

What are the above words called? I think someone called them auxiliary verbs.

Edit: When I learned them, my curriculum called them "State of Being verbs" or just "Being verbs".

  • 1
    And why does everyone always learn them in that order? Except the weird ones who do "be, been, being".
    – mmyers
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 15:38
  • 2
    For the record, some of us weird ones learned "Am, Are, Is, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been."
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 20:41
  • Some of these answers are so metaphysical; we should probably have some Heidegger expert weigh in on this
    – mfg
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 19:07
  • I learned them in the same order as the OP, but kitukwfyer's order makes grammatical sense: 1st person, 2nd person, etc.
    – moioci
    Commented Aug 21, 2010 at 3:43

5 Answers 5


The words you cited are all forms of the verb “be”, which is also known as a copula or linking verb.

The term auxiliary verb applies to verbs, such as forms of be, have, and do, that conjoin with another verb to add syntactic or semantic information, such as grammatical aspects like the progressive aspect or perfective aspect:

  • progressive aspect: be + present participle (e.g. am walking)
  • perfective aspect: have + past participle (e.g. have walked)

Verbs such as will and shall combine to indicate future tense or conditional tense.

  • 2
    Note, it's not always the copula, and be isn't the only copula in English.
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 25, 2010 at 4:53
  • Many linguists in modern times use a slightly different definition of "auxiliary" when talking about words in English that does not require the presence of another verb. You can see an overview in this slideshow by Geoff Pullum: lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/grammar/aux_sli.pdf If auxiliaries are defined, as Pullum argues, by the "NICE" properties, then "be" is basically always an auxiliary, even when it takes a noun or adjective phrase as a complement.
    – herisson
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 21:43

And, to add to the terminology conundrum:

"to be" is either

  • a copula verb: it asserts a property

    John is a teacher

    Peter is nice

  • an auxiliary verb: it is required to encode, e.g., tense or voice

    Max has been beaten up by members of this gang

  • a full-blown main verb: roughly meaning "to exist"

    To be or not to be: that is the question

These distinctions can become quite fuzzy. Consider:

There is a unicorn in the garden

Is this the "exist"-reading of the verb, or is it copula use? I currently have no definite answer for this.

  • my guess is that its like this... noun+prepositional phrase. copula usage when referring to the who, what, where; main verb as in existence only when used as a declarative of noun+verb ie 'A unicorn is' (and disregarding the prep. phrase).
    – mfg
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 19:05

Those are just forms of the verb to be. To be is just one of the auxiliary verbs in English (and it's not always an auxiliary). Others are:


To be is an auxiliary verb; am, is, are, was, were, being, been are different tenses of the verb.


Kiamlaluno's answer is the closest to my understanding - And though mfg mentions Heidegger, Plato and Aristotle were the source of original Ontological dialogues of being qua being. "I am that you were." states tenses of the abstract qualities of being. The sentence is awkward and seems to be too truncated, but it is actually has correct usage of the 'being' tenses reflected in both 'am' and 'were'. The distinction reads as, "I am (present reference being) that you were (past reference being). With this distinction, Am, Is, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been can be considered as referential verbs. In context; referential Referential / Reference is a relation between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another object. The first object in this relation is said to refer to the second object."

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.