I often get asked by students why we use ‘is being’ in English. It looks quite strange and also doesn’t really look necessary. But beware, it is actually a very useful construction! Here are two occasions for which you should definitely use it.
‘Is/are being’ with passive sentences
As you may know, the passive voice is used when a sentence focuses on the person who experienced an action, not the person who carried out the action. For example:
- The man was taken to prison.
Here the sentence above focuses on the man, the person who experienced the action.
*For more information about the passive: click here!
The passive is formed by using:
To be + past participle
The passive can be used in any tense that you need it, including the present continuous tense. It is in this tense when you need to use ‘is/are being’.
As you may also know, the present continuous tense is used to describe temporary things or things that are happening right now. Here are some passive examples:
- ‘People are being told to leave their homes because of the storm’ - (people are temporarily being told to leave while the storm is arriving).
- ‘The road is being extended’ - (the road is currently being extended in a temporary project which will soon finish).
- ‘Hundreds of people are being killed in the war’ - (hundreds of people are being killed now in a hopefully temporary war which won’t last forever).
So, to summarize, we use ‘is being + past participle’ to talk about temporary things happening now in the passive. This is not optional, in fact it is very important to use this form because it completely changes the meaning of the sentence.
Here are some sentences in present simple passive and present continuous passive to show you the difference.
Present simple passive - is/are + past participle
- ‘Discounts are offered to people under 16’ - discounts are always offered
Present continuous passive - is/are being + past participle
- ‘Discounts are being offered to people under 16’ - discounts are temporarily being offered
Classic examples to be careful of
- ‘Cameras are used to monitor the situation’ - (cameras are always generally used to monitor the situation).
- ‘Cameras are being used to monitor the situation’ - (cameras are being used now to monitor the current situation).
- ‘The situation is resolved’ - (‘resolved’ here looks like an adjective. On its own, this sentence looks like the problem has gone away).
- ‘The situation is being resolved’ - (the situation is currently being resolved right now).
This can also be used in the past tense with was/were being, but the difference here is not so significant:
- ‘Discounts were offered to people under 16’.
- ‘Discounts were being offered to people under 16’.
The fact that these sentences are in the past means that the discounts are no longer offered, so they were only temporary anyway. So there is no real need for the difference between these two sentences. Here, ‘were being’ is mainly used for emphasis - to show that the discounts didn’t really last for a long time.
With other tenses, we don’t really use ‘being’, because phrases like ‘have been being offered’ or ‘will be being offered’ look too strange!
Remember also that the present continuous can also be used to talk about future plans. So you will also see ‘is/are being’ to refer to the future. For example:
- ‘The road is being extended next month’ - future plans to extend the road.
- ‘The case is being reviewed on 17th September’ - future plans to review the court case.
‘Is/are being’ with adjectives
If you want to describe someone using an adjective, you use a very simple construction in English which I’m sure you all know, for example:
- ‘John is funny’.
- ‘Peter is stupid’.
These sentences talk about someone’s personality or general characteristics. But if you want to talk about the way that someone is acting only temporarily, you then you should use ‘is being’, for example:
- ‘John is being stupid’ - John is temporarily being stupid now.
- ‘They are being very loud’ - they are temporarily being loud now.
It is very important to use ‘is/are being’ for temporary situations, because if you don’t, it sounds like it is part of someone’s permanent personality!
Going back to the ‘John is stupid’ example…
- ‘John is stupid’ - he is stupid in general, as part of his personality.
- ‘John is being stupid’ - he is temporarily being stupid now.
If we take another situation, imagine that you want to meet your friends to do some revision for a test, but your friend Kelly doesn’t want to come because she is not in the mood to revise. If you say: ‘Kelly is being lazy’, It means that Kelly is being lazy only on this particular occasion, which is the correct phrase to use. But if you say ‘Kelly is lazy’, it means that Kelly is permanently lazy, which could sound very offensive!
Again we can also use this in the past tense with ‘was being’, but in the past tense there isn’t really much difference between ‘John was being stupid’ and ‘John was stupid’. If you say ‘John was stupid’ in the past tense, it suggests that John is no longer stupid now, so it is clear that it was only temporary anyway.
However, it is useful if you want to emphasize that John was being stupid for a continuing but temporary duration of time. For example: ‘John was stupid yesterday’ can mean:
- John was continually stupid all day
- John was stupid for one moment yesterday
‘John was being stupid yesterday’ means: This sentence emphasises that John was being continually stupid yesterday.
So there you have it everyone, the differences and two uses of ‘is/are being’ in English. Just remember that ‘is/are being’ is not optional, and sometimes, as I hope I have shown, it is very very important! Keep an eye out for more useful English articles from me the future. Good day to you all!