How many auxiliary verbs are there in English?
A South African member of Jose Carillo‚Äôs English Forum who goes by the username Spelling thought there are only three, namely ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúbe,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhave,‚ÄĚ and believing this to be the case, she recently asked for confirmation if it‚Äôs correct that their different forms are as follows: ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdoes,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdid‚Äô; ‚Äúam,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúis,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúare‚ÄĚ; and ‚Äúhave,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúhas,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhad.‚ÄĚ
Here‚Äôs my reply to Spelling:
It‚Äôs incorrect to say that there are only three auxiliary verbs
in English, namely ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúbe,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhave‚ÄĚ as you‚Äôve listed. The count actually rises to as many as 23 when we include the so-called modal auxiliaries
; however, ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúbe,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhave‚ÄĚ indeed hold the distinction of being the three primary auxiliary verbs in the sense that they are the most commonly used.
Your listing of the different forms of the auxiliary verb ‚Äúdo‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ‚Äúdoes,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdid‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒis complete. In the case of ‚Äúhave,‚ÄĚ however, the progressive-tense form ‚Äúhaving‚ÄĚ has to be added to make a total of four: ‚Äúhas,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúhave,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúhad,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhaving.‚ÄĚ And for ‚Äúbe,‚ÄĚ you listed only its three present-tense forms ‚Äúam,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúis,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúare‚ÄĚ; to these must be added the past-tense forms ‚Äúwas‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúwere,‚ÄĚ the progressive tense form ‚Äúbeing,‚ÄĚ and the past-participle ‚Äúbeen,‚ÄĚ making a total of seven forms.
Before making a complete accounting of the English auxiliary verbs, however, let‚Äôs agree first on a definition of the term ‚Äúauxiliary verb.‚ÄĚ A simple but instructive definition is that an auxiliary verb
‚ÄĒalso loosely called a ‚Äúhelping verb‚ÄĚ or, more precisely, a ‚Äúverbal auxiliary‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒis one that enables or helps a main verb express tense, voice, emphasis, or modality
. Another way of saying this is that an auxiliary verb adds functional or grammatical content to the information expressed by the main verb.
As examples, in the sentence ‚ÄúThey did
take the loot,‚ÄĚ the verb ‚Äúdid‚ÄĚ works as an intensifier
for the verb ‚Äútake‚ÄĚ to emphasize that the action was, in fact, done; in the sentence ‚ÄúHe is being
fooled,‚ÄĚ the auxiliary verb ‚Äúbeing‚ÄĚ works with the linking verb ‚Äúis‚ÄĚ to form the present progressive passive tense of the main verb ‚Äúfooled‚ÄĚ; and in the sentence ‚ÄúShe has
taken my share of the cake,‚ÄĚ the auxiliary verb ‚Äúhas‚ÄĚ works with the past participle ‚Äútaken‚ÄĚ to form the present perfect tense of the verb ‚Äútake.‚ÄĚ
To these primary auxiliary verbs we now must add the subclass of auxiliary verbs that, unlike the former, don‚Äôt inflect or can‚Äôt change form at all. These are the so-called modal auxiliaries
, or modals
for short. The most commonly used modals are ‚Äúcan,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúcould,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúmay,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúmight,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúmust,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúshall,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúshould,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúwill,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúwould‚ÄĚ; less commonly used are ‚Äúdare,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúneed,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúought.‚ÄĚ
Functionally, a modal auxiliary or modal works with a main verb to express conditionality, necessity, obligation, ability, or wishful desire
; it is unlike the typical auxiliary verb
, which works with the main verb to denote voice, tense, or emphasis
. In the sentence ‚ÄúShe can
speak French fluently,‚ÄĚ for instance, the modal ‚Äúcan‚ÄĚ works to convey the ability
of the subject to speak French fluently. In the sentence ‚ÄúShe does
speak French fluently,‚ÄĚ in contrast, the auxiliary verb ‚Äúdo‚ÄĚ acts as an intensifier to emphasize the subject‚Äôs ability
to, in fact, speak French fluently.
Keep in mind, though, that the three auxiliary verbs ‚Äúbe,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdo,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhave‚ÄĚ can also function as main verbs
. For instance, in the sentence ‚ÄúYou be
the one,‚ÄĚ the verb ‚Äúbe‚ÄĚ works as a main verb to denote asking someone to assume a certain role; in ‚ÄúShe does
all the work here,‚ÄĚ the verb ‚Äúdoes‚ÄĚ functions as the main verb to denote performing all the work; and in ‚ÄúThey have
lots of money,‚ÄĚ the verb ‚Äúhave‚ÄĚ works as a main verb to denote possession of lots of money.This essay first appeared in the weekly column ‚ÄúEnglish Plain and Simple‚ÄĚ by Jose A. Carillo in the September 20, 2014 issue of
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