Using the “Be” Verb in TOEFL Speaking and Writing

Using the “be” correctly will help you to score higher on the speaking and writing sections of the exam. Seven simple rules will help you to improve your grammar and pronunciation of this important verb.

Using the "Be" Verb

1. Use as a main verb in an independent clause.

Use this verb in an independent clause to show state of being.

  • The professor was absent from his Physics class yesterday.
  • *The professor absent from his Physics class yesterday.*

The second sentence is incorrectly written. “Absent” cannot be used as a verb, In addition, there is no verb in the sentence.

2. Use as an auxiliary verb with the continuous verb tenses.

This verb can be used with the present and past continuous verb tenses to denote an in-progress action.

  • The student is completing her biology final exam right now.
  • My friend was driving on the freeway when a fatal accident occurred a 1/4 kilometer in front of his car.

Make sure you do NOT omit this verb when conveying these types of occurring actions.

  • *Most students preparing for the TOEFL exam by completing ETS’s Online TOEFL Course.*
  •  *The workers plowing the field when they saw a large mountain lion approach them.*

“Preparing” should be changed to “are preparing.”  In the second sentence, change “plowing” to “were plowing.”

3. Do not conjugate when this verb comes after modals.

Use the base form of this verb when it comes after modals such as “would,” “could,” “must,” “can,” “may,” and “might.”

  • John might be at the party if his parents do not make him do chores.
  • The students must be in class to take the final exam next week.

Do not use infinitives after this verb.

  • *The students will to attend the concert next week.*
  • *Most teams must to verify that their participants are between 14 and 16 years of age.*

Change “to attend” to “attend” and “to verify” to “verify” since infinitives cannot be used after modals.

4. Use this verb when forming the passive voice.

Passive voice can be identified by several factors:

  • The subject is the recipient of the action.
  • The “be” and a past participle verbs are used.
  • “By” + a noun phrase may be placed at the end of the sentence.

Observe how the verb is used in the following two passive voice sentences.

  • Mexico City was damaged by a 7.3 earthquake two weeks ago.
  • The university has been awarded a 10 million dollar grant to add a computer facility.

5. Use the base form of this verb when appropriate in the subjunctive mood.

Use the “be” verb when using the subjunctive mood in noun clauses. This is especially true when the independent clause part of the sentence uses verbs of urging such as require, urge, recommend, require, and suggest.

  • The professor required that all students be present to take the final exam.
  • I suggest that students be active participants in the English-speaking culture in which they are immersed.

6. Unstress this verb when it precedes a main verb. However, stress the verb when it is a negative auxiliary verb.

Observe how the speaker does not place a lot of stress on this verb when it comes before a main verb.

  • The student was COMPLETING a TOEFL iBT test when his cell phone rang.

In this sentence, the speaker places stress on the negative “be” verb and the main verb.

  • The professor isn’t going to give students a chance to rewrite their plagiarized papers.

the “be” verb is negative, the speaker places stress on both the auxiliary and the main verb.

7. Eliminate this verb in a verb string if the action can be expressed more clearly in a main verb.

Sometimes the “be” verb is not needed, so the action should be more clearly expressed in a more descriptive verb.

  • *The concert was exhilarating to the audience.
  • The concert exhilarated the audience.”

In the second sentence, the writer uses “exhilarated” instead of”was exhilarated” to use a more concise, descriptive verb.


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