When to Use Is or Are

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  • 0:04 The Word 'Be'
  • 1:09 Is
  • 2:19 Are
  • 3:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

'Is' and 'are,' which are both forms of the verb 'be,' can be quite challenging to use correctly. This lesson will explain how 'is' and 'are' function as forms of 'be' and how to properly use them.

The Word ''Be''

What is the meaning of ''is''? What are we supposed to do with ''are''? We use these two words in speech and writing every day, but if you stop and think about it, they can be really confusing. Why do we say ''John is tired'' but then say ''John and Jack are tired''? Well, let's find out.

To understand ''is'' and ''are'', we have to start with the word ''be''. Despite being small, ''be'' is probably one of the most confusing words in the English language. To start with, it's a verb, or action word, but it doesn't refer to any kind of actual action like ''run'' and ''jump'' do. Instead, ''be'' is a verb we use to talk about nouns (people, places, and things) or pronouns, which are the words that take the place of nouns, like ''I'', ''you'', and ''he/she''. We use the word ''be'' to indicate the identity, qualities, and condition of a person, place, or thing.

And if that wasn't confusing enough, ''be'' is an unusual verb in that it takes many different forms, which have little to do with each other. ''Is'' and ''are'' are two of those forms. Both are used when the verb is in the present tense, or happening right now.


So when do we use ''is'' instead of ''are''? Well first, as we have already established, the verb needs to be in the present tense. Then, we need to look at the noun or pronoun the verb is attached to, particularly its number and person.

Number describes if the verb is singular, meaning there is only one person, place, or thing, or plural, meaning there is more than one. Person refers to the noun's relationship to the person speaking or writing. When the noun is the speaker (''I''), that is first-person. When it's the person being spoken to (''you''), that is second-person. If it is anyone else (''he, she, it''), that is third-person.

The word ''is'' is used for third-person singular; that means the noun or pronoun is neither the speaker nor the person being spoken to and there is only one of them, as in these examples:

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