Auxiliary Verbs

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

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.

The NICE Properties of Auxiliaries

The so-called NICE properties of auxiliaries serve to distinguish them from main verbs. NICE is an acronym for:


Auxiliaries take not or n’t to form the negative, eg. cannot, don’t, wouldn’t


Auxiliaries invert with what precedes them when we form questions:

[I will] see you soon ~[Will I] see you soon?


Auxiliaries may occur “stranded” where a main verb has been omitted:

John never sings, but Mary does


Auxiliaries can be used for emphasis:

I do like cheese

Main verbs do not exhibit these properties. For instance, when we form a question using a main verb, we cannot invert:

[John sings] in the choir ~*[Sings John] in the choir?

Instead, we have to use the auxiliary verb do:

[John sings] in the choir ~[Does John sing] in the choir?


Among the auxiliary verbs, we distinguish a large number of multi-word verbs, which are called SEMI-AUXILIARIES. These are two-or three-word combinations, and they include the following:

get to
happen to
have to
mean to
seem to
tend to
turn out to
used to
be about to
be going to
be likely to
be supposed to

Like other auxiliaries, the semi-auxiliaries occur before main verbs:

The film is about to start
I‘m going to interview the Lord Mayor
I have to leave early today
You are supposed to sign both forms
I used to live in that house

Some of these combinations may, of course, occur in other contexts in which they are not semi-auxiliaries. For example:

I’m going to London

Here, the combination is not a semi-auxiliary, since it does not occur with a main verb. In this sentence, going is a main verb. Notice that it could be replaced by another main verb such as travel (I’m travelling to London). The word ‘m is the contracted form of am, the progressive auxiliary, and to, as we’ll see later, is a preposition.

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