Auxiliary Verbs

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In the examples of -ing and -ed forms which we looked at, you may have noticed that in each case two verbs appeared: 
      [1] The old lady is writing a play 
      [2] The film was produced in Hollywood 
Writing and produced each has another verb before it. These other verbs (is and was) are known as AUXILIARY VERBS, while writing and produced are known as MAIN VERBS or LEXICAL VERBS. In fact, all the verbs we have looked at on the previous pages have been main verbs. 

Auxiliary verbs are sometimes called HELPING VERBS. This is because they may be said to "help" the main verb which comes after them. For example, in The old lady is writing a play, the auxiliary is helps the main verb writing by specifying that the action it denotes is still in progress. 

Auxiliary Verb Types

In this section we will give a brief account of of each type of auxiliary verb in English. There are five types in total: 
Passive be This is used to form passive constructions, eg. 

The film was produced in Hollywood 

It has a corresponding present form:

The film is produced in Hollywood 

We will return to passives later, when we look at voice.

Progressive be As the name suggests, the progressive expresses action in progress: 

The old lady is writing a play

It also has a past form:

The old lady was writing a play

Perfective have The perfective auxiliary expresses an action accomplished in the past but retaining current relevance: 

She has broken her leg

(Compare: She broke her leg

Together with the progressive auxiliary, the perfective auxiliary encodes aspect, which we will look at later.

Modal can/could 
Modals express permission, ability, obligation, or prediction: 

You can have a sweet if you like 
He may arrive early 
Paul will be a footballer some day 
I really should leave now

Dummy Do 

This subclass contains only the verb do. It is used to form questions:

Do you like cheese?

to form negative statements:

I do not like cheese

and in giving orders:

Do not eat the cheese

Finally, dummy do can be used for emphasis:

I do like cheese 


An important difference between auxiliary verbs and main verbs is that auxiliaries never occur alone in a sentence. For instance, we cannot remove the main verb from a sentence, leaving only the auxiliary: 

I would like a new job ~*I would a new job
You should buy a new car ~*You should a new car
She must be crazy ~*She must crazy

Auxiliaries always occur with a main verb. On the other hand, main verbs can occur without an auxiliary. 

      I like my new job 
      I bought a new car 
      She sings like a bird 
In some sentences, it may appear that an auxiliary does occur alone. This is especially true in responses to questions: 
      Q. Can you sing?  
      A. Yes, I can 
Here the auxiliary can does not really occur without a main verb, since the main verb -- sing -- is in the question. The response is understood to mean: 
      Yes, I can sing 

This is known as ellipsis -- the main verb has been ellipted from the response.

Auxiliaries often appear in a shortened or contracted form, especially in informal contexts. For instance, auxiliary have is often shortened to 've

      I have won the lottery    ~I've won the lottery 
These shortened forms are called enclitic forms. Sometimes different auxiliaries have the same enclitic forms, so you should distinguish carefully between them: 
      I'd like a new job ( = modal auxiliary would) 
      We'd already spent the money by then ( = perfective auxiliary had 

      He's been in there for ages ( = perfective auxiliary has) 
      She's eating her lunch ( = progressive auxiliary is

The following exercise concentrates on three of the most important auxiliaries -- be, have, and do

Is the highlighted verb a main verb or an auxiliary verb?
1. I will have the soup Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb 
2. Police are investigating the incident  Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb 
3. It is very peaceful here   Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb 
4. Where does your brother work?  Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb
5. They have decided to advertise your job Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb
6. He does his homework on the way to school Main Verb  
Auxiliary Verb

More on Verbs...


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