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Concourse 2

The Primary Auxiliary verbs

4

Definitions

definition

An auxiliary verb is one which cannot usually stand alone and retain a clear meaning.  Compare, for example,

  1. He can
  2. He went
  3. They are
  4. She smokes

It's clear that the meanings of sentences 1. and 3. are obscure unless we have some more information.  We need to know what He can do and What they are or are doing.
Sentences 2. and 4., however, are complete in themselves and need no further elaboration.
The verbs can and are in these examples are auxiliary verbs and the verbs went and smokes are main or lexical verbs.  This is a crucial distinction.


complication

Complication 1

Some verbs can function in both ways.  They can be auxiliaries and they can also be lexical verbs.  For example, in these sentences the verbs can, be and have are functioning in both ways.  Can you identify which is which?
Click here when you have an answer.

  1. The factory cans tomatoes
  2. She can tell you tomorrow
  3. She is a teacher
  4. She is arriving now
  5. She has the papers
  6. She has been to the USA

Here, we are only concerned with the auxiliaries.

complication

Complication 2

There are two kinds of auxiliary verbs in English: Primary Auxiliaries and Modal Auxiliaries.
Modal Auxiliaries include, for example, can, may, might, should, ought to etc.  These verbs express notions such as possibility, permission, obligation, likelihood and so on.  There are guides to these elsewhere on the site.  The place to start is the guide to modality.
The ones in focus here are the primary auxiliaries and for our purposes, these are be, have, do and get.

complication

Complication 3

Some auxiliaries (notable will) are usually called modal but often act to give grammatical information by forming a tense with a main verb.  For this reason, some people will classify will and would as Primary Auxiliaries.  That is not the approach taken here.  If you want to learn more about the functions of will and would, go to the guide to modality.


function

What do the Primary Auxiliary verbs actually do?

Auxiliary verbs in general are sometimes called 'helping verbs' and, although that is rather babyish, there is a kernel of truth in it.  Primary Auxiliaries 'help' in the sense that they provide grammatical information and tell us how to view the lexical verb which follows.
We'll take them one by one.


do

The first thing to note about this verb is that it is very frequently seen as a lexical verb in things such as: He did the work carefully, She is doing her homework, They do that a lot etc.  The lexical verb does not concern us here.

The second thing to note is that this verb only functions as a Primary Auxiliary in present simple and past simple tenses.  Nowhere else.

do as a Primary Auxiliary

What function is the verb do performing in these examples?

  1. Did you see the film?
  2. I don't understand
  3. I do demand it
  4. Don't talk to me

Click here when you have an answer.

The summary of do:

do

In questions, imperatives and negatives, the verb is not usually stressed.  The stress in these cases is on the lexical verb because that is carrying the meaning.  In emphasising uses, however, the verb is stressed.


have

The first thing to note is that have can function as a lexical verb and frequently does.  For example:

  • I have a shower every evening (meaning, roughly, take)
  • I have his address (meaning, roughly, possess)

The second thing to note is that when it is a lexical verb, we can:

  • Use it with the do auxiliary (as above) to make questions or negatives when have is a lexical verb in, e.g.
        I don't have a shower every evening
        Do you have sugar in tea?
        Do you have my address?
    etc.
  • Make negatives and questions (especially in British English) without the do auxiliary but only if the meaning is something like possess or own as in, e.g.
        I haven't (got) your address
        Have you (got) the money?
    etc.
    The use of got in these cases is almost obligatory in British English and leaving it out sounds very formal.
    American English almost always prefers the do auxiliary in these cases and there is evidence that British English is tending that way.  It is certainly easier to teach it that way.

The third thing to note is that when the verb is a Primary Auxiliary, we never use the do auxiliary with it.  Never.  It is not possible to say something like
    *Do you have met him?
and that is a cause for error at lower levels especially.

The fourth complication is that have when it is followed by to + an infinitive is a modal auxiliary akin to must as in, e.g.
    I have to leave now
and in this case it does not qualify as a primary auxiliary verb but is a modal auxiliary verb.

have as a Primary Auxiliary

What function is the verb have performing in these examples?

  1. Have you seen the film?
  2. I won't have done it by then
  3. I haven't eaten this before
  4. He has spent all his money
  5. He had already left when I arrived
  6. I hadn't expected something so beautiful, had you?
  7. I had my tooth taken out
  8. I'll have the window repaired

Click here when you have an answer.

The summary of have:

have

This diagram is incomplete.  The verb have as a Primary Auxiliary also performs the function of making other perfect tenses as in, e.g.
    I will have finished by 6
    Will you have had time to do it?
etc.


be

The first thing to note is that the verb be can function as a lexical verb and usually expresses:

  1. The relationship between two things in, for example, She is a teacher, It is a mistake
  2. The characteristics of something in, e.g., They are French, He is very clever

In these cases it is known as a copular verb and joins two things together.  For more, see the guide to copular verbs.

The second thing to notice is that this verb has eight different forms (most have only four or five): be (the base form), am, is, are (present forms), was, were (past forms), being (the present participle and gerund) and been (the past participle, often of the verb go).  All of these can be used when the verb is acting as a lexical verb or as an auxiliary.  That is confusing for learners at lower levels.

be as a Primary auxiliary

What function is the verb be performing in these examples?

  1. I am seeing him tomorrow?
  2. They were playing tennis at the time
  3. She was explaining it to me
  4. The window was broken by a bird
  5. The car has been repaired

Click here when you have an answer.

The summary of be:

be 


get

This guide is slightly unusual in classifying get as a Primary Auxiliary but it can function this way as well as functioning as a lexical verb.
As a lexical verb it has a very wide range of meanings.  Some dictionaries will list over 40 different meanings of the verb ranging from achieve, reach, arrive etc. to become, grow and leave.  Adding particles to get such as on, out, over, to etc. adds even more meanings.
Here, however, we are interested in get as an auxiliary.

get as a Primary Auxiliary

What function is the verb be performing in these examples?

  1. I got the house painted
  2. She got her foot trapped
  3. The window got damaged
  4. They will get arrested for it

Click here when you have an answer.

So, in sentences a. and b., we can replace get with have and in sentences c. and d., we can replace it with be.
In both cases get is usually less formal.

The summary of get:

get


Summary

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summary all


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Related guides
modality essentials for a guide to the other sort of auxiliary verbs
modals one by one for a traditional guide to pure (or central) modal auxiliary verbs
semi-modal verbs the more technical guide to semi- and marginal modal verbs
tense and aspect to see how primary auxiliaries work to make tense and aspect forms
voice with a focus on the active and passive
copular verbs for a guide to how be and other verbs work to link the subject and complement
the present perfect for a guide to how have works to form the language's most troublesome and misunderstood tense
the causative a more technical guide to using have and get to make a form of the passive