15) Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs

1) Different roles of Auxiliary verbs

One definition of ‘auxiliary’ is ‘giving support; serving as an aid.’ Considering this, auxiliary verbs are verbs which support the main verb in its function of describing an action, condition or state of being. Most commonly, auxiliary verbs help this main verb to express tense, voice and mood. We will focus on tense, and voice. Before we do, auxiliary verbs fit largely into four different groups: forms of ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ and modal auxiliary forms. Here is a list for reference.:

Forms of be: , am, are, is, was, were, be, being, and been.

Forms of have: have, has, had and having.

Forms of do: do, does, and did

Modal Auxiliary Verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, ought to, will, would.

Let’s look at auxiliary verbs helping the main verb form tense first.

1.1 Auxiliary verbs helping the main verb form tense

One of the main uses of auxiliary verbs is helping the main verb form tense. Let’s look at a sentence with and without an auxiliary verb:

Without: ‘I was cold.’

With: ‘I was waiting in the cold.’

In ‘I was cold’ the linking verb ‘was’ is a linking, intransitive verb describing a condition. There is no auxiliary verb in this sentence because there is only one verb: ‘was’. However, in ‘I was waiting in the cold.’ the word ‘was’ becomes an auxiliary verb because it is supporting the main verb ‘waiting’. To be precise, ‘waiting’, in this context, is a present participle working as a verb to form the past progressive tense. We will explore what that means later. For now, let’s explore the idea of ‘was’ being an auxiliary verb for ‘waiting’ further.

So, in ‘I was cold.’ the writer is giving him/herself the condition of being cold. The verb ‘was’ is used to link the subject ‘I’ with the predicate adjective ‘cold.’ In this situation, ‘was’ is known as the main verb because it is the only verb in the sentence.

However, in the second sentence ‘I was waiting in the cold’ it is the verb ‘waiting’ which is the main verb. This is because ‘was’ has now become an auxiliary verb, supporting the verb ‘waiting’ by adding the past tense to it. Auxiliary verbs will always be found at some point before the main verb, so we can think of them like ladders which the main verbs can climb up to reach a larger meaning than they would alone.

It can also be interesting to try and replace auxiliary or main verbs to get a feel for their role in the sentence. In ‘I was waiting in the cold’ the auxiliary verb ‘was’ is letting us know that this happened in the past, rather than it is happening now. If it were happening now it could be changed to:

I am waiting in the cold.

So this is just adding to the tense of the present participle verb ‘waiting’. However, if you change the main verb ‘waiting’ the meaning of the sentence drastically changes, as in ‘I was dancing in the cold.’ Here are a bunch of examples showing the auxiliary verbs, in bold, providing a different tense:

I am lost again.

I was lost again.

I will be lost again.

I will have been lost again.

We will look at tenses in detail soon. For now, just realise that the bolded verbs are adding a tense to the main verb ‘lost’, therefore working as auxiliary verbs.

1.2 Auxiliary verbs helping the main verb form voice

We will look at voice later, here. As an introduction, there are two voices: active and passive. Active voice is when the subject performs the action, and passive is when the subject receives the action. So it goes like this:

Active voice: when the subject performs the action.

Passive voice: when the subject receives the action.

Active voice example: I hate arrogant people.

Passive voice example: Arrogant people are hated by me.

In the active sentence ‘I’ is the subject and it is performing the action (hating). This makes it active voice. In the passive sentence, the subject is ‘Arrogant people’ and this is receiving the action (being hated). This makes it passive. Note how in the passive voice example we have the auxiliary verb ‘are’ + the main verb ‘hated’. This is an example of auxiliary verbs being used to form voice. Another example is:

John was excited by Christmas.

Here we have the auxiliary verb ‘was’ working on the main verb (which is a past participle) ‘excited’ to form the passive voice. The subject ‘John’ is receiving the action (being excited) from ‘Christmas’.

1.3 Auxiliary verbs in questions

Auxiliary verbs can also be used in questions. In the following examples I have bolded the auxiliary verb and underlined the main verb:

Are you drinking tea?

Have you drunk tea before?

Do you drink tea?

We can more clearly see the relationship between these two when we swap them around:

You are drinking tea.

You have drunk tea before.

You do drink tea.

1.4 Auxiliaries in negatives

In spoken English, and informal written English, the auxiliaries are often contracted when used in negative form. For example:

is not = isn’t

He is not driving home.

He isn’t driving home.

have not = haven’t

You have not got the keys.

You haven’t got the keys.

do not = don’t

I do not have the keys.

I don’t have the keys.

1.5 Auxiliaries as question tags

Auxiliary verbs can also be used as part of questions tags. A question tag involves tagging an interrogative grammatical fragment onto the end of a declarative, or imperative, statement, to turn it into a question. In other words, a group of words with a question mark after it (interrogative grammatical fragment) is tagged onto the end of a group of words which states a perceived fact, or argument (declarative statement) or a group of words which gives an order, or request (imperative statement). Question tags are common in spoken English, and can sometimes be found in informal written English, but are very rare in formal written English. They have many different functions. For example:

You are hungry, aren’t you?

Here the interrogative fragment ‘aren’t you’ is added onto the end of the declarative statement ‘you are hungry’ thus turning it into a question. Here ‘aren’t you?’ is being used to push for a response, rather than just stating ‘you are hungry’. We can imagine saying this to a guest at our house as a way to gauge if they want something to eat.

Another example is:

Pass me the salt, would you?

Here the interrogative fragment ‘would you’ is added onto the end of the imperative statement ‘pass me the salt’ thus turning it into a question which softens the request – a bit like ‘please’. The modal auxiliaries ‘will’ / ‘would’ are usually tagged onto the end of imperatives, with a large group of other auxiliaries being tagged onto the end of declarative sentences. We look at modal auxiliaries later.

Two general rules which are true a lot of the time are:

1) In declarative sentences the interrogative fragment tagged onto the end either uses the same auxiliary verb as earlier in the sentence, or, if the main verb is a form of ‘be’, the fragment will use a ‘be’ form. Moreover, when there is no auxiliary, and the main verb is not a ‘be’ form, a form of ‘do’ is often used. Let’s look at some examples of this rule.

Firstly, here is an example with ‘is’ as the main verb, then ‘is’ used as part of the fragment:

The weather is terrible, isn’t it?

Here we have the main verb ‘is’ (a form of ‘be’) and the tag using ‘isn’t’ (which has has ‘is’ within it).

An example with an auxiliary earlier in the sentence then used in the fragment is:

You are looking great, aren’t you?

Here we have the auxiliary ‘are’ and the tag using ‘aren’t’ (which has the ‘be’ form ‘are’ in it).

An example without an auxiliary earlier on, and with a main verb which isn’t a ‘be’ form, which therefore uses a form of ‘do’ in the fragment, is:

You ate the food fast, didn’t you?

Here we have the main verb ‘ate’, with no auxiliary, so we used a form of ‘do’ in the tag with ‘didn’t’.

In imperative examples we most commonly use ‘will/would’, meaning the above rule doesn’t work in these examples. We have already seen ‘would’ being used to soften a statement in:

Pass the salt, would you?

We sometimes use ‘will you’ to make a more forceful command, as in:

Stop shouting, will you?

We sometimes use ‘won’t’ to make a polite invitation, as in:

Join us for dinner, won’t you?

2) The most common structure in declarative statements is:

positive statement : negative tag

negative statement: positive tag

Let’s look at an example of each, starting with positive statement : negative tag:

This queue is taking forever, isn’t it?

Here we have the positive declarative statement ‘this queue is taking forever’ followed by the negative tag ‘isn’t it?’ which is short for ‘is it not?’ Now for an example of negative statement: positive tag:

I am not going to win this argument, am I?

Here we have the negative declarative statement ‘I am not going to win this argument’ followed by the negative tag ‘am I?’

However, this isn’t always the case, as in:

So you are trying to trick me, are you?

Here we have the positive declarative statement ‘so you are trying to trick me’ followed by the positive tag ‘are you?’

This rule is also not really the case for imperative statements, as we have seen in earlier examples. For example:

Pass the salt, would you?

Here we have the positive imperative statement ‘pass the salt’ and the positive tag ‘would you?’

2) Auxiliary forms looked at separately

Before we move on to a different type of auxiliary verbs known as modal auxiliary verbs, let’s take a more detailed look at the ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ forms.

2.1 ‘be’ forms 

‘be’ can be a main verb or an auxiliary verb. Briefly, it’s forms are:

Base form = be

Present form = am/is/are

Past form = was/were

Present Participle / Gerund = being

Past Participle = been

We see forms of ‘be’ as an auxiliary verb in the progressive tenses. As I said, we deal with the tenses in detail, soon. Briefly, the progressive tenses deal with ongoing actions, and are also sometimes called ‘continuous’. Let’s look at examples of ‘be’ forms in each progressive tense next.

‘be’ in past progressive tense

The past progressive tense is made up of the ‘be’ forms ‘was’ or ‘were’ + the present participle form of the verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

I was writing all day yesterday.

Here we have the past tense auxiliary ‘was’ and the present participle form of the main verb ‘write’ which is ‘writing’.

‘be’ in past perfect progressive tense

The past perfect progressive tense is made up of ‘had been’ + the present participle form of the verb (‘ing form). ‘Been’ is a past participle form of the verb ‘be’, and will work as an auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb that comes after it. An example is:

I had been sweating for the past two hours.

Here ‘been’ is working as an auxiliary verb on the present participle form of the main verb ‘sweat’ which is ‘sweating’.

‘be’ in present progressive tense

The present progressive tense is made up of the ‘be’ forms ‘am’, ‘is’ or ‘are’ + the present participle form of the verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

I am writing a novel.

Here ‘am’ is the auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘write’ which is ‘writing’.

He is running a marathon.

Here ‘is’ is the auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘run’ which is ‘running’.

They are creating a computer game.

Here ‘are’ is the auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘create’ which is ‘creating’.

‘be’ in present perfect progressive tense

The present perfect progressive tense is made up of ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle form of the main verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

They have been creating a computer game.

Here ‘been’ is an auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘create’ which is ‘creating’.

‘be’ in future progressive tense

The future progressive tense is made up of ‘will be’ + the present participle of the main verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

I will be singing at the party.

Here ‘be’ is the auxiliary for the present participle of the main verb ‘sing’, which is ‘singing’.

‘be’ in future perfect progressive tense

The future perfect progressive tense is made up of ‘will have been’ + the present participle of the main verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

He will have been living here for 5 years soon.

Here ‘been’ is the auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘living’.

‘be’ as an auxiliary to form the passive voice

The forms of ‘be’ work as auxiliaries to form the passive voice. So, if we take a sentence in the active voice, like:

The hospital hires doctors.

Where we have the subject performing the action (The hospital) + the main verb (hires) + the direct object (doctors). This doesn’t need an auxiliary verb. However, to form a passive voice sentence we do need an auxiliary. An example turning the above into the passive voice with a ‘be’ auxiliary verb is:

Doctors are hired by the hospital.

Here we have the subject receiving the action (doctors) + ‘are’, which is the auxiliary of the past participle of the main verb ‘hire’, which is ‘hired’, + the preposition ‘by’ + the object doing the action (the hospital).

2.2 ‘have’ forms

‘have’ can be a main verb or an auxiliary verb. Briefly, it’s forms are:

Base form = have

Present form = have / has

Past form = had

Present Participle / Gerund = having

Past Participle = had

The forms of ‘have’ are used as modal auxiliary verbs in making the past, present and future perfect and perfect progressive tenses. Again, we look at these in more detail later, but, for completion, let’s have a quick look at an example of each, now:

‘have’ forms as Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense is made up of ‘had’ + the past participle of the main verb. For example:

He had lived there for 10 years already.

Here ‘had’ is an auxiliary supporting the past participle of the main verb lived’ which is ‘lived’.

‘have’ forms as Past Perfect Progressive Tense

The past perfect progressive tense is formed by ‘had been’ + the present participle of the main verb (‘ing’ form). For example:

I had been living there for 10 years.

Here ‘had’ is working as an auxiliary to the other auxiliary verb ‘been’ which itself is working as an auxiliary to the present participle form of the verb ‘live’ which is ‘living’.

‘have’ forms as Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect tense is made up of ‘has’ or ‘have’ + the past participle of the main verb. For example:

I have lived there for 10 years already.

Here ‘have’ is working as an auxiliary to the past participle form of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘lived. An example with ‘has’ is:

He has lived there for 10 years already.

Here ‘has’ is working as an auxiliary to the past participle form of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘lived.

‘have’ forms as Present Perfect Progressive Tense

The present perfect progressive tense is made up of ‘has been’ or ‘have been’ + the present participle of the main verb. For example:

He has been living there for 10 years already.

Here ‘has’ is working as an auxiliary to ‘been’ which itself is an auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘living’.

He had been living there for 10 years already.

Here ‘had’ is working as an auxiliary to ‘been’ which itself is an auxiliary to the present participle of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘living’.

‘have’ forms as Future Perfect Tense

The future perfect tense is made up of ‘will have’ + the past participle of the main verb. For example:

I will have lived here for 10 years in March.

Here ‘have’ is working as an auxiliary for the past participle of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘lived’.

‘have’ forms as Future Perfect Progressive Tense

The future perfect progressive tense is made up of ‘will have been’ + the present participle of the main verb. For example:

I will have been living here for 10 years in March.

Here ‘have’ is working as an auxiliary for ‘been’ which itself is an auxiliary for the present participle of the main verb ‘live’ which is ‘living’.

‘have’ forms as auxiliary to create passive voice

The forms of ‘have’ work as auxiliaries to form the passive voice. So, if we take a sentence in the active voice, like:

The hospital hires doctors.

Where we have the subject performing the action (The hospital) + the main verb (hires) + the object (doctors). This doesn’t need a ‘have’ form of the verb. However, to form a passive voice sentence we do need an auxiliary. An example turning the above into the passive voice with a ‘have’ auxiliary verb is:

Doctors have been hired by the hospital.

Here we have the subject receiving the action (doctors) + ‘have’, which is the auxiliary to ‘been’ – which itself is the auxiliary of the past participle of the main verb ‘hire’, which is ‘hired’, + the preposition ‘by’ + the object doing the action (the hospital).

Contracted and negative forms of ‘have’

It is worth taking a look at the contracted forms of the ‘have’ forms as auxiliaries because, while they are generally not accepted in formal writing, they are very common spoken in English. We often hear them after pronouns, as we will see in the examples.

Let’s look at ‘have’ first:

I have = I’ve. (e.g., ‘I’ve lived here for 10 years.’)

I have not = I haven’t. (e.g., ‘I haven’t been here before.’)

We have = We’ve (e.g., ‘We’ve lived here for 10 years.’)

We have not = We’ve not (e.g., ‘We’ve not been here before.’)

Now let’s look at ‘has’:

He/she has = He’s/She’s (e.g., ‘He’s/She’s lived here for 10 years.’)

He has not = He hasn’t (e.g., ‘He hasn’t been here before.’)

Now let’s look at ‘had’:

I had = I’d (e.g., ‘I’d lived here for 10 years when they moved in.’)

I had not = I hadn’t (e.g., ‘I hadn’t been here before today.’)

We had not = We hadn’t (e.g., ‘We hadn’t been here before today.’)

We had = We’d (e.g., We’d lived here for 10 years when they moved in.’)

2.3 ‘do’ forms as auxiliary verbs

‘do’ can be an auxiliary or a main verb. It’s forms are:

Base form = do

Present form = do/does

Past form = did

Present Participle / Gerund = doing

Past Participle = done

Difference between auxiliaries do/ does/ did

‘do’ and ‘does’ are both used for the simple present tense: ‘do’ is used for the first person singular/plural, the second person singular/plural, and the third person plural, while ‘does’ is used for the third person singular.

Let’s look at some examples of ‘do’ first:

First person singular: I do like eating.

First person plural: We do like eating.

Second person singular/plural: You do like eating.

Third person plural: They do like eating.

And an example of ‘does’ in the third person singular would be:

Third person singular: He/she/it does like eating.

The past tense ‘did’ can be used for all the above, as in:

First person singular: I did like eating.

First person plural: We did like eating.

Second person singular/plural: You did like eating.

Third person singular: He/she/it did like eating.

Third person plural: They did like eating.

‘do’ forms as auxiliaries add emphasis to the main verb

One important use of the ‘do’ forms when they are auxiliaries is to add emphasis. In the sentences with the ‘do’ forms we use the base form of the main verb, sometimes called the bare infinitive. This means that the main verb uses the form we see in the dictionary when a ‘do’ auxiliary form comes before it. The word in the dictionary is the one without any inflection, so it will be ‘drink’, rather than ‘drinking’ or ‘drinks’. Let’s look at examples of sentences with, and without, each of the forms, starting with ‘do’:

I drink water.

I do drink water.

Firstly, ‘drink’ is used in both because we are in the first person. If it was in the third person, and masculine, we would have:

He drinks water.

for the first example, and

He does drink water.

for the second. Notice how, without the auxiliary ‘do’, in the third person, the main verb becomes ‘drinks’, while, with the auxiliary ‘do’ it stays as the base form ‘drink’. So, to clarify, ‘do’ is being used as the auxiliary for the main verb ‘drink’.

Whereas the first example ‘I drink water’ is a simple statement, the second example ‘I do drink water’ is adding an extra emphasis to it. Consider this exchange:

Person 1: You should drink water.

Person 2: I drink water.

Now consider the same exchange with the ‘do’ added in:

Person 1: You should drink water.

Person 2: I do drink water.

The ‘do’ emphasises the fact that person 2 already is drinking water, therefore responding more strongly to the question from person 1. The ‘do’ would usually be stressed in this sentence, adding to the strength given by the ‘do’ verb.

An example using ‘does’ is:

He types fast.

He does type fast.

Notice that the main verb has the present simple tense ‘form ‘types’ in the first example, whereas when ‘does’ is added it reverts to its base form we see in the dictionary: ‘type’. The use of ‘does’ here adds an extra emphasis as though to say ‘it is true, he really does type fast’.

An example with ‘did’ is:

I said thank you.

I did say thank you.

Now that we are in the past tense, the main verb in the first example is the simple past tense ‘said’ while the second example again uses the base form we see in the dictionary: ‘say’. Again, this emphasises that an apology was given.

do’ forms as auxiliaries forming questions

We can form questions with ‘do’ ‘does’ and ‘did’ as auxiliaries, with the construction:

Do form + subject + main verb

An example of the present tense ‘do’ form ‘do’ is:

Do I lift heavy enough to compete?

Here we have the do form ‘do’ + the subject ‘I’ + the main verb ‘lift’. Here ‘do’ is an auxiliary for the main verb ‘lift’.

An example of the present tense ‘do’ form ‘does’ is:

Does she run fast enough to compete?

Here we have the ‘do’ form ‘does’ + the subject ‘she’ + the main verb ‘run’. Here ‘does’ is an auxiliary for the main verb ‘run’.

An example of the past tense ‘do’ form ‘did’ is:

Did you enjoy that novel?

Here we have the ‘do’ form ‘did’ + the subject ‘you’ + the main verb ‘enjoy’. Here ‘did’ is an auxiliary for the main verb ‘enjoy.

Negative forms of ‘do’ and their contractions

We use auxiliary forms of ‘do’ when creating negative forms. Before we look at each form, let’s look at the negative contraction first:

Do not = Don’t

Does not = Doesn’t

Did not = Didn’t

OK, so let’s look at the negative use of ‘do’ first. The negative form of ‘do’ is:

Do not

This is true for first person singular / plural:

I do not like the cold.

We do not like the cold.

Second person singular/plural:

You do not like the cold.

Third person plural:

They do not like the cold.

but it doesn’t work for third person singular, as in:

She/He/It do not like the cold. (incorrect)

The contracted negative form of ‘does not’ is ‘doesn’t’.

Does not = doesn’t

‘does’ is the opposite to ‘do’ in regards to which pronouns it works with because it works with the third person singular, as in:

She/He/It does not like the cold. (correct)

But not with any of the others. The following are all wrong:

I does not like the cold. (incorrect)

We does not like the cold. (incorrect)

You does not like the cold. (incorrect)

They does not like the cold. (incorrect)

The negative contracted form of ‘did’ is ‘didn’t’.

Did not = didn’t

‘did’ works for all of the above

I did not like the cold.

We did not like the cold.

You did not like the cold.

They did not like the cold.

She/He/It did not like the cold.

‘do’ forms as question tags

‘do’ forms are usually used when there is no auxiliary, and there is no ‘be’ form as the main verb, as we saw earlier. For example:

We eat fast, don’t we?

Here we have the main verb ‘eat’, which is neither an auxiliary, nor a main verb ‘be’ form, so we used the ‘do form’ ‘don’t’.

3) Questions

1) Discuss some of the roles of auxiliary verbs

2) Discuss the use of ‘be’, ‘have’ and ‘do’ forms as auxiliary verbs

Now we have finished with these three auxiliary forms, let’s move on to a different series of auxiliaries: the modal auxiliaries.

NEXT: 16) Modal auxiliary verbs

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