Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained.

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained.

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained. 1

A dispute between linguists about the verb “to be”

“Biti ili ne biti, to je pitanje” – Do you recognize this quote?

That’s how the famous line from Hamlet sounds in Serbian (“To be or not to be, that is the question”).

The verb “jesam” and the verb “biti”

There are grammarians who argue that the verbal forms jesam, jesi, jeste, jesmo, jeste, jesu and their short variants sam, si, je, smo, ste, su are a distinct verb, separate from the verb biti and call it “the verb jesam“.

For them, the infinitive biti is only for the forms budem, budeš, bude, budemo, budete, budu.

Other grammarians follow the etymology of jesam and track its roots back to biti, considering the two different forms to be the perfective and imperfective aspects (more on the aspects soon) of this one verb.

That’s why in some textbooks and grammar books you will find the forms jesam and sam listed under the name glagol jesam, and in the others under the name glagol biti.

Don’t let them confuse you! 

Since the meaning of all these forms can only be translated with the verb to be (or its corresponding counterparts in other languages, like: essere, ser y estar, εΙμαι, être, sein etc)we will consider all these to be different forms of a single verb whose infinitive is biti.

When to use biti – verb to be?

Verb biti is used to connect a subject with:

  • a pronoun: Moj brat je on. (My brother is he.)
  • an adjective: Moj brat je dobar. (My brother is good.)
  • an adverb: Moj brat je dobro danas. (My brother is fine today.)
  • another noun with preposition: Moj brat je iz Srbije. (My brother is from Serbia.)
  • another noun without preposition: Moj brat je moj prijatelj. (My brother is my friend.)

Or an adverb with another adverb: 

  • Danas je toplo. (Today it’s hot.) 
  • Ovde je zanimljivo. (Here it’s interesting.)

As an auxiliary verb, biti is used to form

  1. past tenses,
  2. future perfect tense and
  3. the conditional.

(New posts about these are being created, subscribe not to miss them!)

Now be a diligent student and grab your notebook. Here’s a useful table for you to copy:

All possible forms of Serbian verb to be in present tense

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained. 2


Are you confused about when to use which of all these forms?

I know, you must be.

Here are the general guidelines:


When to use which form of verb to be?


1) In present or past, use the imperfective forms:

  • short positive forms (sam, si , je etc.) for positive sentences and
  • negative forms (nisam, nisi, nije etc.) when negating


Remember to use the the long forms (jesam, jesi, jeste etc.) only in these situations:

  • when you want to really emphasize the verb;
  • for answering (we often use jesam, jeste instead of „da“, as well as nisam, nije etc. instead of „ne“);
  • when asking questions* („Jeste li vi Amerikanci?“)

* Except for the third person singular, where we use the short form („Je li on Amerikanac?“ or colloquially „Je l’ on Amerikanac?“, which is also written “Jel on Amerikanac?).



2) The perfective forms are only used:

  • with modal verbs („želim da budem”),
  • with conditional conjunctions (ako, kad) and
  • in forming the future perfect tense (more on this soon).


But the Serbian verb to be can cause another confusion!

There is another verb with infinitive biti. It’s present tense stem is bijeand it means to beat!

So to the Hamlet’s dilemma “Biti ili ne biti”, a Serbian teacher can only respond:


“Biti ili tući – to je pitanje!” To beat or to hit, THAT is the question!

(Tući, tuče is actually a synonym of biti, bije.)


Whoa, hold your horses! 

Does this variety confuse you? I bet it does, but that’s normal. It’s only a sign that you should slow down and take it bit by bit. Go back to the beginning, and write notes in your notebook as you read the text again.

If you are a complete beginner, do not rush. Start with short and negative forms only (ja sam – ja nisam; ti si – ti nisi etc.). Learn it piece by piece and give yourself time to get used to the new language.

In the video bellow, I teach only pronouns and short forms of verb to be in Serbian, positive and negative, and only singular – to begin with

First set a solid basis, and then you’ll be ready to build on.

Essentials of Serbian Verbs – The Three-Faced Present Tense

Essentials of Serbian Verbs

The Three-Faced Present Tense

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 3

The first verbs anyone learns in Serbian are these two:

  • biti (to be)to say for example „Ja sam dobro“ (I’m fine), or “Ja sam Magdalena” (I’m Magdalena)
  • and zvati se (to be named), to say „Ja se zovem Magdalena“ (My name is Magdalena).


If you compare how they are conjugated, you can observe a consistency in the endings, in all persons except for the second person singular.

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 4

The 2nd person singular of the verb biti ends in –iand this is a striking exception,

because all the other Serbian verbs end in –Š for the second person singular of the present tense,

just like the verb zvati se.



Why we tend to omit pronouns in Serbian?


It’s the language economy.


The endings that you’ve just seen are signals that show what is the Subject, or who we are talking about.

They are the reason why we omit pronouns.

From the ending it’s clear who or what is the subject, so we won’t repeat the information. That’s the language economy.


  • If a verb ends in –m, we always know that it’s about „ja“, the first person singular.
  • When we see or hear –š in the end of a verb, we know it’s about „ti“, you singular.
  • If a verb ends in –mo, we know it’s about „mi“, the first person plural.
  • When it ends in –te, we know it’s about „vi“, you plural.
Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 5

These are universal endings for ALL Serbian verbs in the present tense.

With only 3 exceptions, of which you’ve already learned one:

ti si (you are; second person singular of verb biti, to be)


The other two are also essential and important to learn:

ja hoću (I will, from the verb hteti, to will or want) and ja mogu (I can, from the verb moći, to can or be able)

Here the first person singular oddly ends in –u. But if I tell you that it’s the normal way to conjugate in Russian (Я буду, Я иду) and even some Montenegrin dialects („viđu“ instead of „vidim“, I see), it may look less strange.


The Three Types of Serbian Verbs Conjugation

The third person singular IS the present tense stem.

Its signal is actually the lack of an ending. (That’s why there’s only a dash and no ending in the table above.)

And based on how this stem ends, we can classify all the verbs in three groups:

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 6

Why is this so important for you?

Because in so many verbs of the Serbian language the infinitive and the present tense stems differ significantly! But I’ll tell you more about that in just a minute.


Now let’s see what happens with the third person plural (they).

Here we can have three different endings:


  • whenever the stem (or the third person singular) ends in –A, the third person plural will end in –AJU;
  • if the stem ends in –I the third person changes that to –E;
  • and when the stem ends in –E the third person changes that to –U.


That’s what I call „the Law of the Third Person Endings“:

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 7

This is the table that covers ALMOST ALL verbs in the Serbian language.


Now, why is this important?


Because many verbs have one stem in infinitive and another in the present tense!

This means that the infinitive doesn’t always tell us how to conjugate a verb in present.


For example, the infinitive of the verb zvati (to call) ends in –ati,

but the verb belongs to the E group,

and it gets an extra -o-,

so it goes: (ja) ZOVEM!


If an infinitive ends in –ati, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the verb belongs to the A group!


That’s why my rule of thumb for choosing your dictionary is to make sure that it includes both the infinitive and the present tense forms.


And that’s why I always teach the verbs in two forms: zvati, zove

(zvati for infinitive, zove for the present tense stem).

Here and in my other resources, like “Your first 50 Verbs” that I share with my email subscribers, or in “The Ultimate Conjugator”.



Now, after reading all this, you must feel that you’ve learned a great deal about the Serbian verbs.

But you haven’t!


To really learn it, go back to the beginning of this text and read it with a pen and a notebook.

Write all the important information and draw the tables by your own hand.


Then make a list of verbs and practice making sentences with them.

Actually, you’ll need three lists: for A, I and E verbs.

If you don’t have that, sign up to my newsletter and I’ll send you “Your first 50 Verbs”.

Make at least two variants of all sentences with these verbs:


1) for the third person plural, because the endings are different, and

2) for any other person, because the endings are the same.


This is a useful exercise even for advanced students, because they are also often confused which ending to use for the third person plural:

–AJU, –U, or –E.


Only having the information is not enough.

Learning a language takes practice.

The Declining Secret Revealed: The Best Approach to Understanding and Learning the Serbian Cases

The Declining Secret Revealed:

The Best Approach to Understanding and Learning the Serbian Cases

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

The Declining Secret Revealed: What Cases are & how to Learn Them

What are cases?

Cases are different forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives used for different purposes. The Serbian language has 7 of them:

  1. Nominative,
  2. Genitive,
  3. Accusative,
  4. Locative
  5. Dative,
  6. Instrumental, and
  7. Vocative.

When you start learning Serbian, or another similar language, that’s usually the most challenging part of the grammar you need to understand and get used to.

If you’ve already learned a language with cases, that’s great!

If not, let me try and explain what cases are based on your understanding of English.


When you say „I love them“, I is the subject of your sentence and them is the object. If you want to reverse this statement, you can’t simply say *Them love I (!) – you have to use the proper case: They love me.

So for subject, or to say who is doing the action, we use the Nominative case: I and they.

And for object, or who is receiving the action, we use the Accusative case: me and them.

The fun thing is that in Serbian, we do this with ALL nouns, pronouns and adjectives: we decline them. Yep, that’s the verb: to decline means to change a noun, pronoun or adjective for number and case.


In some languages (like German or Greek) it is mostly the article what shows the case. In Serbian we don’t have articles, so we use the ending of a word to indicate case.


Let me tell you two secrets about the Serbian case system

You will read everywhere that we have 7 cases. But the truth is that you actually have 6 to learn, because Locative and Dative are actually the same! The difference in their form disappeared centuries ago.

Another truth is that you don’t really need the Vocative case if it will make your life easier: it is used only to call or address the people, so it’s practically useless.

That leaves us with 5 sets of case endings you need to learn.


Understand the Serbian cases from a practical perspective

When someone starts learning Serbian as a foreign language, they stumble upon the cases and they rely on prepositions (on, to, at, with etc.) to convey meaning, because that’s what they do in their mother tongue.

However, watching my two-years old son learning to speak, I’ve noticed that he actually uses the case endings to convey meaning! He doesn’t use prepositions at all!

The first case he learned after Nominative was Genitive to say [kod] „mame“ (I want to go to mama).

His „with mama“ sounds „mamom“ in perfect Instrumental, instead of „sa mama“, what you might expect.

He experiments with case endings. He will usually use the right ending for the meaning he’s trying to convey, but he might apply it to a wrong noun, or often use plural ending for singular.

Slowly but steady, his brain is learning all these categories and sorting out the words and endings.


So this is what cases are: meanings!

And they are very important because of that. You can get by with using prepositions and nouns, you will be understood. But to understand Serbian, especially when you start using more complex sentences and texts, you need to learn and become familiar with the meanings of the cases.


How to learn the cases efficiently

One by one and little by little. You need to organize your thoughts around each category of nouns, pronouns and adjectives. Then you’re supposed to assign the right case endings to each category, and to learn how to use each case. Then you have to to get used to using the cases and understanding them.

If this is your first language with declensions, you need to build new structures in your brain, and that takes time, but it’s worth it.

Not only will you impress everybody with your right usage of the cases, you will actually build your brain! It will grow new synapses and pathways and become more powerful.

You will get there, step by step. Do not hurry with trying to learn all the cases in a short period! You will only feel overwhelmed, that’s simply too much! Take one case at a time and build vocabulary. Practice using one before moving on to the next. Stick to 3 or 4 cases for the first half of a year!

That is how I’ve successfully taught many students and that is how I teach cases in the Tako Lako Beginner Serbian Course:

  • First I explain the Nominative, without insisting on it – it’s just singular and plural of nouns.
  • Then I add a little bit of the Genitive, just to give you the taste.
  • Then it’s time to understand Accusative and start using it as direct object.
  • Finally, Locative is used to talk about locations.

And that’s it!

Learn these 4 cases very well, while building vocabulary as much as you can. Get used to using them and start feeling confident at least a little.

Only after that you should learn other Serbian cases, even if it takes you a year! Otherwise, they would only make a confusion in your head.