Monday, March 5, 2018

Verb Phrases and Auxiliary Words

Verb Phrases and Auxiliary Words

As noted on the previous page, a verb phrase consists of the most important verb in the phrase plus any auxiliary words attached to that verb. 

Auxiliary words indicate one or more of these: voice, tense, mood, and aspect.

Voice means whether the verb is active or passive. If a verb is passive, that is usually indicated by the use of a be auxiliary.

                    The dog ate my pie! (Active, no be auxiliary)
                    The pie was eaten.  (Passive, indicated by be-auxilliary)

Tense is often indicated on main verb itself. If so, no auxiliary will be needed. But sometimes, when the verb is more complex (when we’re added complexities of aspect or mood or voice, in other words) the tense will be indicated via one of the auxiliaries.

            The dog ate my pie. (Tense is on the main verb.)
            The dog was eating my pie. (Tense is on the be auxiliary.)
             James did eat my pie. (Tense is on the have auxiliary)

Mood has to do with modal verbs. The modals – can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must – affect the semantic meaning of the main verb, taking it from the indicative mood (a statement of fact) into a different realm of meaning. This other realm varies depending on which modal we choose. See page 197 in your text for a more complete range of meanings; but for instance, with the modals can and could, one meaning given is permission. Another is ability.

               I can’t open the pod bay door, Dave.
                       Could you pass the salt?

With should and must, one meaning is deontic.

                    I should study for that exam tonight.
                    We must never surrender!

Though another meaning might be deductive:

                    The door is open – Luis must be home.

Will shows a promise, or certainty; because of this, it is also used for the future tense. (English has no real future tense.)

                    It will get better.
                    Polly will be here at nine.

You don’t need to worry very much about these different variations of the modal. Just be able to identify a modal auxiliary as a modal auxiliary, and know that it functions as part of a verb phrase.

Usage: Can and may

Many of us – I’m tempted to say all of us – have been told that there is a difference between the modals can and may. This is another of the rules invented in the 17th century, and passed down relentlessly, a shibboleth dunned into us by endless successions of teachers and mothers and aunts.

Small child: “Can I get some water?”
Pedantic adult: “I believe you have the ability to do so, yes.”
Small child (suppresses an adult cuss): “May I get some water?”
Pedantic adult (deeply pleased at passing on the grammatical abuse): “Yes, you may!”

In actual fact, there is little semantic difference between can and may, at least in this specific sense. Can, unlike may, is able to convey ability; but both are able to convey permission and potentiality. 

                        I can drive a stick.
                        He may be finished by Tuesday.
                        He can be finished by Tuesday.
                        You can have the truck tomorrow.
                        You may have the truck tomorrow.

Like the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition, as well as the rule making a distinction between will and shall, the rule distinguishing between can and may is a bogus rule, and not one we should bother to teach, or observe, for that matter.

Shall/Will: While we’re here, the separation between shall and will is equally false. If you’ve never been taught this rule, good. If you have, then feel freed from it!

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Aspect: Another function of auxiliary words is to indicate aspect. Most standard English speakers use aspect without really thinking about it, or sometimes even recognizing it. Aspect in English has to do with whether an action is complete, or incomplete, or ongoing.  

The be auxiliary is used to indicate on-going action (also called progressive verbs), as well as action that is/was incomplete:

                  Elvis is baking six pies. (He's doing in now and the action is both continuous and incomplete.)

                  Elvis was baking pies. (His action was continuous and on-going)

                  Elvis is always baking pies. (His action is continuous and habitual.)

The have auxiliary indicates action that was completed in the past.

                The circus has come to town. (The action is completed, and it still affects the present.)

                 The game had already started when the storm broke. (The action was completed before another event.)

Note that more than one auxiliary can be used; this will happen when the verb phrase needs to indicate multiple features -- mood, tense, aspect, or voice.

We were being tested on all six chapters.
They might have eaten all the pie.

Here, in the first verb phrase, we have a be-auxiliary were (indicating on-going action) and a second be-auxiliary being (indicating the passive voice).

In the second verb phrase, we have a modal auxiliary might (giving the mood), and a have-auxiliary, have, indicating that the action is completed in the past and still affecting the present.

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Final Note: The text goes into a great detail about how tenses, moods, aspects, and voice are formed, ending with this formula for how to build the main verb phrase:

        TENSE + modal + HAVE + {en} + BE + {ing} + Main Verb

What they’re telling you is that, while not all of these features appear in every verb phrase, this is more or less the order the features that do appear in a verb phrase will appear when they do appear.

I’m not convinced that this is helpful, but here’s how it works.
Take the base sentence à Sally eats.

The verb carries tense here (present tense). Nothing else is happening. But we might add a modal.

                                Sally might eat.

Or we could add a have auxiliary, if we want to add aspect. This will also require us to shift the verb to a participle (that {+ en})

                                Sally might have eaten.

                                Sally has eaten.

Or maybe we want a progressive aspect. Then we’ll need the BE auxiliary, and the {-ing} participle.

                                Sally was eating.

Again, most of us already know how to form verb phrases. We learned this as toddlers. So I wouldn’t worry about all this too much.

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