The Polish Verb ‘To Be’ Być, Present and Past Tense
The verb to be in Polish is one of the first verbs most leaners come across. It is also one of the most useful Polish verbs, because it can be used to express a lot, much like its English counterpart.
In English the verb ‘to be’ is irregular, which means it changes entirely depending on its subject and tense: I am, you are, I was, you were. In Polish however, it’s easier to see the continuity in the verb, and while its infinitive form - być - doesn’t look or sound like any of its present forms, it follows the same pattern as all other Polish verbs, in which different endings are used to change meaning. For that reason, starting by learning the various endings for być (to be) can really help you when you come to expand your vocabulary and learn other Polish verbs.
Pronouns – ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ etcetera – are rarely used in Polish sentences. Instead, the verb itself takes care of identifying who is being talked about. It is worth knowing the pronoun associated with each ending, but bear in mind, it could sound archaic or out of place if used in general conversation.
Verb Endings for Być
Below you can see the various verb endings for być in the present tense for both singular and plural subjects, along with the associated pronoun. The pronouns outside of brackets are required when you use this form of the verb.
Być (Present Tense)
Singular (Ja) jestem (I am) [First person singular]
(Ty) jesteś (You are) [Second person singular]
On/ona/ono jest (He/she/it is) [Third person singular]
(My) jesteśmy (We are) [First person plural]
(Wy) jesteście (You [plural/group] are) [Second person plural]
Oni/one są (They are) [Third person plural]
It’s easy to see how useful knowing the endings for the verb ‘to be’ can be; just think how often you use these forms in English conversation. In Polish, the verb być is used for introductions (Jestem John (I am John)), statements of fact (Jestem chory (I am ill)) and questions (gdzie jest john? (where is John?)), to name just some of its functions.
Forming the Past Tense – I was/ you were
Once you’ve got the hang of the present tense, the past tense of być may look quite odd, but that’s because it is actually more similar to its infinitive form; at least, that is, it begins with a ‘b’.
Furthermore, the past tense of Polish verbs always depends on the gender of the subject, so there are different forms for male and female speakers.
The past tense endings of być in their masculine and feminine (and neuter where required) forms are as follows:
Być (Past Tense)
Singular (Ja) byłem (I was) [Masculine first person singular]
(Ty) byłeś (You were) [Masculine second person singular]
On był (He was) [Masculine third person singular]
(My) byliśmy (We were) [Masculine first person plural]
(Wy) byliście (You [plural/group] were) [Masculine second person plural]
Oni byli (They were) [Masculine third person plural]
(Ja) byłam (I was) [Feminine first person singular]
(Ty) byłaś (You were) [Feminine second person singular]
Ona była (She was) [Feminine third person singular]
(My) byłiśmy (We were) [Feminine first person plural]
(Wy) byłiście (You were) [ Feminine second person plural]
One były (They (f) were) [Feminine third person plural]
There is one instance of a different ending for neuter subjects in the past tense: Oni było (it was).
The plural pronouns oni/one are and refer to groups of people (literally, ‘they’). The feminine pronoun one is only ever used with groups entirely of women; if one man is present the masculine pronoun oni must be used.