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.

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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.