The Verb to Be in Russian: How to Use It and When

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We are gathered here today to dispel a myth, I mean, the myth about the Russian language: the verb “to be” in Russian.

In fact, many claim that the verb “to be” in Russian doesn’t exist.

Not only is it not true, but there are also THREE verbs “to be” in Russian: быть, бывать and являться! They are similar, but each of them follows different rules.

So why do people think Russians don’t use this verb?

That’s because the verb “to be” in the Russian language plays a totally different role than it does in Romance and Germanic languages.

In this post I’m going to investigate this role and don’t worry, because at the end you will find the PDF recap available for download.

Let’s begin!

to be in russian

The verb to be in Russian: Introduction

If you (like me) are a native speaker of a Romance or Germanic language, at school you were taught that every complete sentence should feature a verb, often according to the pattern: subject, verb and complement.

  • The cat is red
  • The table is made of wood
  • The pen is on the table

But not in Russia.

Russian children are taught that a verb is needed to connect subject and complement in complex sentences, but it’s by no means mandatory in simple sentences, especially in the present tense.

This explains why you won’t find a verb in many Russian sentences:

  • Море синее (The sea is blue)
  • Россия самая большая страна мира (Russia is the largest country in the world)
  • Ручка на столе (or “ручка лежит на столе” – The pen is on the table)
  • Мне холодно (I’m cold)
  • Я в офис (I’m going to the office)

This is how the Russian language works: sometimes the verb “to be” is omitted, sometimes it’s replaced by an em dash that is called “тире” (tirè) and is not pronounced or by one of the Russian verbs of position.

This unbridgeable void creates a lot of problems at the beginning. I know, it takes time to get used to it.

However, sometime the verb “to be” in Russian is used. Here you’ll find out when and which one.

Являться

Let’s start with the imperfective verb 'являться' that it is the easiest to remember and use.

The pair “являться – явиться” means “to appear,” but the imperfective verb is also treated as “to be” in some sentences.

 PRESENTPASTFUTUREIMPERATIVE
Яявляюсьявлялся
являлась
буду являться
Тыявляешьсяявлялся
являлась
будешь являтьсяявляйся
Он
Она
Оно
являетсяявлялся
являлась
являлось
будет являться
Мыявляемсяявлялисьбудем являться
Выявляетесьявлялисьбудете являтьсяявляйтесь
Ониявляютсяявлялисьбудут являться

Now compare these sentences:

Наша компания является официальным дистрибьютором продуктов «AAA» в России. (Our company is the official distributor of “AAA” products in Russia)

Пельмени являются одним из самых популярных блюд в России. (Pelmeni are one of the most popular dishes in Russia)

Наша компания официальный дистрибьютор продуктов «AAA» в России. (Our company is the official distributor of “AAA” products in Russia)

Пельмени один из самых популярных блюд в России. (Pelmeni are one of the most popular dishes in Russia)

What do you see?

The two couples of sentences are identical in English, but not in Russian.

This is because the verb 'являться' makes the style more formal and therefore it’s used in writing or business presentations.

The sentence 'Антон является моим другом' (Anton is my friend) is fine from the point of view of grammar but sounds very strange. Russians would simply say 'Антон мой друг'.

ATTENTION! The verb 'являться' requires the instrumental case, while the тире is followed by the nominative case!

verb to be in russian
These are pelmeni!

Быть

Now, let’s see the second verb “to be” in Russian – “быть“.

 PRESENTFUTUREPASTIMPERATIVE
Яестьбудубыл
была
 —
Тыестьбудешьбыл
была
будь
Он
Она
Оно
естьбудетбыл
была
было
 —
Мыестьбудембыли —
Выестьбудетебылибудьте
Ониестьбудутбыли —

First of all, let’s pay attention to the column of the future. Does that ring a bell?

That’s right! We have already seen this verb in the previous chart, and it’s always present in the conjugation of the only compound tense in Russian: the future tense of imperfective verbs.

Do you remember perfective and imperfective verbs?

Well, the future tense of imperfective verbs is compound, meaning that it needs an auxiliary verb “быть” + the infinitive form of the verb that carries the meaning.

However, this is not the only chance you have to use this verb “to be” in Russian.

Above I wrote that “the verb “to be” in Russian is by no means mandatory in simple sentences, especially in the present tense.”

This applies only to the present tense! In the past and future tenses, however, you always have to use 'быть'!

  • Где ты сейчас? (Where are you now?)
  • Где ты была/был вчера? (Where were you yesterday? / where have you been yesterday?)
  • Где ты будешь завтра? (Where will you be tomorrow?)

The same goes for sentences without a grammatical subject:

  • Там жарко (It’s hot in there)
  • Там было жарко (It was hot in there)
  • Там будет жарко (It will be hot in there)

The instrumental case and the verb to be in Russian

We already know that after the verb 'являться' we should always use the instrumental case; this is a rule.

However, when it comes to 'быть' then in some sentences you may find it followed by instrumental, in others by nominative.

I would suggest to not overthink it and to use the instrumental case in such sentences:

  • Его отец был очень известным врачом. (His father was a famous doctor)
  • Я хочу быть переводчиком. (I want to be a translator)
  • Я надеюсь, что мы будем хорошими друзьями. (I hope we will be good friends)

But remember, there are some cases (mainly idioms) where you should stick with the nominative:

  • When someone sneezes, to say “Bless you!” in Russian you say “Будь здоров!” (be healthy);
  • If you ask someone a favor, you can start with a “Будьте добры” (be kind);
verb to be in russian
Будь здоров!

Бывать

Let’s move on to the third verb “to be” in Russian. Please be careful with this one, it has a lot of different meanings.

Here is the conjugation chart:

 PRESENTPASTFUTUREIMPERATIVE
Ябываюбывал
бывала
буду бывать
Тыбываешьбывал
бывала
будешь быватьбывай
Он
Она
Оно
бываетбывал
бывала
бывало
будет бывать
Мыбываембывалибудем бывать
Выбываетебывалибудете быватьбывайте
Онибываютбывалибудут бывать

1) First meaning

The first meaning of the verb 'бывать' is 'to exist':

  • Розовых слонов не бывает. (Pink elephants don’t exist)
  • Люди разные бывают. (People are all different)

2) Second meaning

To be or spend some time somewhere:

  • Я редко бываю у родителей. (I rarely go to see my parents)
  • Вы часто бываете в Москве? (Are you often in Moscow?)

3) Third meaning

Being in a certain condition, situation or in a temporary state (and here you need to use the instrumental case):

  • Я часто бываю нервной. (I’m often nervous)
  • Антон бывает странным. (Anton is weird sometimes)

4) Idioms

You can also find this verb in many idioms:

  • Бывает! (It happens);
  • Бывай! Бывайте! (as we have already seen in the 6 ways to say “bye” in Russian – bye!)
  • Так не бывает! (That cannot be);
  • Как ни в чём не бывало (like nothing happened);
  • Друзей много не бывает (Cant’ have too many friends)

The verb to be in Russian PDF recap

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