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Be and Continuous Tenses

The verb be can be an auxiliary verb (Marie is learning English) or a main verb (Marie is French). On this page we look at the verb be as a main verb.

Usually we use simple tenses with the verb be as a main verb. For example, we say:

  • London is the capital of the UK.
    (not London is being the capital of the UK.)
  • Is she beautiful?
    (not Is she being beautiful?)
  • Were you late?
    (not Were you being late?)

Sometimes, however, we can use the verb be with a continuous tense. This is when the real sense of the verb be is "act" or "behave". Also, of course, the action is temporary. Compare the examples in the table below:

Mary is a careful person. (Mary is always careful - it's her nature.) John is being careful. (John is acting carefully now, but maybe he is not always careful - we don't know.)
Is he always so stupid? (Is that his personality?) They were being really stupid. (They were behaving really stupidly at that moment.)
Andrew is not usually selfish. (It is not Andrew's character to be selfish.) Why is he being so selfish? (Why is he acting so selfishly at the moment?)

Notice that we also make a difference between "to be sick" and "to be being sick":

  • She is sick (= she is not well)
  • She is being sick (= she is vomiting)
Here is the structure of the verb be in the continuous present tense:
I am being
You are being
He, she, it is being
We are being
They are being

Now check your understanding »

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