Thursday, February 2, 2017

ENGL 3663: Auxiliaries


Auxiliary verbs provide grammatical information about the main verb. Specifically, these verb indicate information about tense, mood, and voice. (We’ll talk about all of this in more depth later on.) You may have heard these verbs called “helping verbs.”

Auxiliary verbs include modals, be-auxiliaries, have-auxiliaries, and do-auxiliaries. The last three are complicated by the fact that, as well as being auxiliary verbs, they can also be true verbs.

Modal auxiliaries: Modals are these words:

·        Can
·        Could
·        Will
·        Would
·        Shall
·        Should
·        May
·        Might
·        Must

Modals are prototypical auxiliary verbs. By this we mean that, although modals function as part of a verb phrase, they cannot be true verbs.

You’ll remember the proofs for verbs, from page 78 of your text. When we test modals on these proofs, we can see clearly that they are not true verbs.

Formal proofs for verbs:

1.    Has a verb-making morpheme (criticize)
2.   Can occur with the present tense morpheme (bakes)
3.   Can occur with the past tense morpheme (baked)
4.   Can occur with the present-participle morpheme (baking)
5.   Can occur with the past-participle morpheme (had baked)

Functional proofs for verbs:

6.   Can be made into a command (Bake!)
7.   Can be made negative (He didn’t bake today.)
8.   Fits one of the two frame sentences:
They must ___________ (it)
They must ___________ good.

None of the modals pass any of these tests. Though some people see would/could as the past tense of will/can, this is not in fact the case – these modals are only used with other words in the sentence expressing a past tense. And although we might think we can make a modal negative, we can’t. J What we’ve really done is make the main verb negative – we just elided that main verb. (The understood verb there is make: we can’t make that negative.)

The function of modal auxiliaries is to express certain grammatical moods, such as obligation, necessity, ability, or condition. We’ll discuss this more later.

Usage: In the South, we have what’s known as the double modal.

                I might could help you fix that truck.
                We might oughta stop by Wal-Mart before the storm.
                Delia shouldn’t oughta taken up with that boy.

While in spoken informal Southern English, this is fine – in fact, I’ve heard my dean and Bill Clinton both use the double modal – in written Standard English one modal is sufficient.

The Have Auxiliary

The have auxiliary is used with the past participle form of the verb to form either the present perfect or the past perfect form of the main verb. Perfect has to do with aspect – in this case, with the completed nature of the action – while present and past have to do with tense.

Present perfect:

        The kittens have caught a mouse.
        Elliot has mowed the lawn.

Past Perfect:

Ivy had finished the exam before the fire alarm sounded.
        Everyone had already eaten.

Usage: Especially in the South and Midwest, there is a tendency to use the past tense verb rather than the past particle with the have auxiliary, as well as with the be auxiliary. Thus, we get constructions like these:

                We have already ate dinner.
                Henry’s went to see his mama.

This is because the present perfect and past perfect are falling out of use in English – we tend to use simple past these days. They’ll be gone soon, I expect. But for now, if you’re using a have or be auxiliary, remember to use the participle form with it.

Have as a true verb:

Like the be auxiliary and the do auxiliary, have can also function as a true verb. Its meaning and function are different in these cases, however.

        Rosalie had read Jane Eyre many times before. (Have auxiliary)
        I had a copy of that book.         (have as a true verb)

        Probably they have already left.         (Have auxiliary)
        They have a farm in Scott County. (have as true verb)


Be Auxiliary:

The be auxiliary had two functions. The first is aspect. Used this way, the be auxiliary combines with the present participle of a verb to express the progressive form.

                Elvis is baking pies for the picnic.
                Ivy was studying for her history exam.

The be auxiliary can also be used to create the passive voice of the verb. It combines with the past participle to do this.

                Those pies were baked by Elvis.
                That wreck was caused by bad planning.
                The murder was committed last night.

What is a passive verb, exactly? 

This is a subject on which even educated speakers and writers of English are often confused. I’ve seen editors and English teachers tell students to never use be-verbs (any be verbs), out of the belief that any sentence with a be verb in it is passive. This is obviously not correct.

It is also not correct that passive verbs are always wrong. For instance, in our last example sentence above –The murder was committed last night – the passive verb is both necessary and desirable, if we don’t know who committed the murder. (If we do, it would indeed be better to say something like this: Richard Spencer murdered the frail old lady in her home last night.)

But back to the main question: What is a passive verb?

In an active verb sentence, we have both an action verb and a subject which performs the action:

                Elvis baked six pies.
                Polly worked on her truck all afternoon.
                Luis explained the problem.

In passive verbs sentences, while we still have an action verb, the subject of the sentence is not performing the action. Rather, it is being acted upon:

                The pies were baked.
                The truck was repaired.
                The problem was explained.

If the actor is included in a passive voice sentence, they’ll be included in a prepositional phrase:

                The pies were baked by Elvis.
                The truck was repaired by Polly.
                The problem was explained by Luis.

Have a look at these sentences – which are passive and which are active?

        All last week, Felix & Sons were repairing our roof.
        Finally, the repairs were finished this afternoon.
        This rocking chair was made in the 18th century.
        My cousins were dancing by the tool shed.
        Lily, my youngest cousin, was injured by a rusty nail.

Be as a True Verb

Like the have auxiliary, be can also act as a true verb.

                We are working on graphing in math class. (Be auxiliary)
                We are math students.              (Be as true verb)

Do Auxiliary
When we use the do as an auxiliary, we use it mainly in three ways.
·        To form questions
·        To form negatives
·        To add emphasis

In modern English, some English verbs – those without the be auxiliary, basically – don’t form questions easily. For example:

                        You saw Jake in town.

In Shakespeare’s day, we could have made this a question just by rearranging the words – Saw you Jake in town? – but in Modern English that’s not an idiomatic construction. These days, we add in a do-auxiliary.

                        Did you see Jake in town?

We’ll do the same thing with negatives – instead of saying, as Shakespeare might have, You saw not Jake in town, we’ll say,

                        You didn’t see Jake in town.

The do-auxiliary can also add emphasis:

                        You did see Jake in town!

Notice that while the tense indication moves to the auxiliary (which often happens with auxiliary verbs) it is still the main verb which is in the past tense here.

Do as a True Verb

We also see do being used as a true verb:

                He did his homework.
                I do the laundry every Thursday.


  1. If Rosalie has exhausted "Jane Eyre" then she should read "Wide Sargasso Sea."