An auxiliary verb
) is a verb
that adds functional or grammatical meaning to the clause
in which it occurs, so as to express tense
, emphasis, etc. Auxiliary verbs usually accompany an infinitive verb
or a participle
, which respectively provide the main semantic content of the clause.
An example is the verb have
in the sentence I have finished my lunch.
Here, the auxiliary have
helps to express the perfect aspect
along with the participle, finished
. Some sentences contain a chain of two or more auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs are also called helping verbs
, helper verbs
, or (verbal) auxiliaries
. Research has been conducted into split inflection in auxiliary verbs.
Below are some sentences that contain representative auxiliary verbs from English
, with the auxiliary verb marked in bold:
you want tea? – do
is an auxiliary accompanying the infinitive, want
, used here to form a question – see do-support
b. She has
given her best shot. – have
, from which has
, is an auxiliary used in expressing the perfect aspect
cogido tu lápiz. – he
is an auxiliary accompanying the infinitive coger
, used here to form a verb phrase, the perfect present in Spanish.
(I) have grabbed your pencil = 'I have taken your pencil.'
d. Das wurde
mehrmals gesagt. – werden
, from which wurde
is inflected, become
is an auxiliary used to build the passive voice
That became many times said = 'That was said many times.'
e. Sie ist
nach Hause gegangen. – sein
, from which ist
is inflected, 'be' is an auxiliary used with movement verbs to build the perfect tense/aspect in German.
She is to home gone = 'She went home/She has gone home.'
vu le soleil. – avoir
, from which ai
is inflected, 'have' is an auxiliary used to build the perfect tense/aspect in French.
I have seen the sun = 'I have seen the sun/I saw the sun.'
g. Nous sommes
hébergés par un ami. – être
, from which sommes
is inflected, 'be' is an auxiliary used to build the passive voice in French.
We are hosted by a friend.
These auxiliaries help express a question, show tense/aspect, or form passive voice. Auxiliaries like these typically appear with a full verb that carries the main semantic content of the clause.
Traits across languages
Auxiliary verbs typically help express grammatical tense
, and voice
. They generally appear together with an infinitive. The auxiliary is said to "help" the infinitive. The auxiliary verbs of a language form a closed class
, i.e., there is a fixed, relatively small number of them.
Widely acknowledged verbs that can serve as auxiliaries in English and many related[clarification needed]
languages are the equivalents of be
to express passive voice, and have
(and sometimes be
) to express perfect aspect
or past time reference.
In some treatments, the copula be
is classed as an auxiliary even though it does not "help" another verb, e.g.,
Definitions of auxiliary verbs are not always consistent across languages, or even among authors discussing the same language. Modal verbs
may or may not be classified as auxiliaries, depending on the language. In the case of English, verbs are often identified as auxiliaries based on their grammatical behavior, as described below. In some cases, verbs that function similarly to auxiliaries, but are not considered full members of that class (perhaps because they carry some independent lexical information), are called semi-auxiliaries
. In French, for example, verbs such as devoir
(have to), pouvoir
(be able to), aller
(be going to
(make), and laisser
(let), when used together with the infinitive of another verb, can be called semi-auxiliaries.
There has also been a study on auxiliary verb constructions in Dravidian languages.
The following sections consider auxiliary verbs in English. They list auxiliary verbs, then present the diagnostics that motivate this special class (subject-auxiliary inversion and negation with not
). The modal verbs
are included in this class, due to their behavior with respect to these diagnostics.
List of auxiliaries in English
A list of verbs that (can) function as auxiliaries in English is as follows:
be, can, could, dare, do, have, may, might, must, need, ought, shall, should, will, would
The status of dare (not)
, need (not)
, and ought (to)
and the use of these verbs as auxiliaries can vary across dialects of English. If the negative forms can't
, etc. are viewed as separate verbs (and not as contractions), then the number of auxiliaries increases. The verbs do
can also function as full verbs or as light verbs
, which can be a source of confusion about their status. The modal verbs
, and dare
when included) form a subclass of auxiliary verbs. Modal verbs are defective
insofar as they cannot be inflected
, nor do they appear as gerunds, infinitives, or participles.
The following table summarizes the auxiliary verbs in standard English and the meaning contribution to the clauses in which they appear. Many auxiliary verbs are listed more than once in the table based upon discernible differences in use.
expresses an ability, necessity, or obligation that is associated with an agent subject. Epistemic modality expresses the speaker's assessment of reality or likelihood of reality. Distinguishing between the two types of modality can be difficult, since many sentences contain a modal verb that allows both interpretations.
List of Auxiliaries Unique to African American Vernacular English
Verbal Auxiliaries in AAVE
Diagnostics for identifying auxiliary verbs in English
The verbs listed in the previous section can be classified as auxiliaries based upon two diagnostics: they allow subject–auxiliary inversion
(the type of inversion used to form questions etc.) and (equivalently) they can take not
as a postdependent (a dependent that follows its head
). The following examples illustrate the extent to which subject–auxiliary inversion can occur with an auxiliary verb but not with a full verb:
a. He was working today.
b. Was he working today? - Auxiliary verb was allows subject–auxiliary inversion.
a. He worked today.
b. *Worked he today? - Full verb worked does not allow subject–auxiliary inversion.
a. She can see it.
b. Can she see it? - Auxiliary verb can allows subject–auxiliary inversion.
a. She sees it.
b. *Sees she it? - Full verb sees does not allow subject–auxiliary inversion.
(The asterisk * is the means commonly used in linguistics to indicate that the example is grammatically unacceptable or that a particular construction has never been attested in use.) The following examples illustrate that the negation not
can appear as a postdependent of a finite auxiliary verb, but not as a postdependent of a finite full verb:
a. Sam would try that.
b. Sam would not try that. - The negation not appears as a postdependent of the finite auxiliary would.
a. Sam tried that.
b. *Sam tried not that. - The negation not cannot appear as a postdependent of the finite full verb tried.
a. Tom could help.
b. Tom could not help. - The negation not appears as a postdependent of the finite auxiliary could.
a. Tom helped.
b. *Tom helped not. - The negation not cannot appear as a postdependent of the finite full verb helped.
A third diagnostic that can be used for identifying auxiliary verbs is verb phrase ellipsis. See the article on verb phrase ellipsis
These criteria lead to the copula be
and non-copular use of be
as an existential
verb being considered an auxiliary (it undergoes inversion and takes postdependent not
, e.g., Is she the boss?
, She is not the boss
, Is there a God?
, There is a God
). However, if one defines auxiliary verb
as a verb that somehow "helps" another verb, then the copula be
is not an auxiliary, because it appears without another verb. The literature on auxiliary verbs is somewhat inconsistent in this area.
There are also some properties that some but not all auxiliary verbs have. Their presence can be used to conclude that the verb is an auxiliary, but their absence does not guarantee the converse. One such property is to have the same form in the present tense, also for the first and the third person singular. This in particular is typical for modal
auxiliary verbs, such as will
. (Examples: He will come tomorrow
, she must do it at once
, not he wills
or she musts
Vs. light verbs
Some syntacticians distinguish between auxiliary verbs and light verbs
The two are similar insofar as both verb types contribute mainly just functional information to the clauses in which they appear. Hence both do not qualify as separate predicates
, but rather they form part of a predicate with another expression - usually with a full verb in the case of auxiliary verbs and usually with a noun in the case of light verbs.
In English, light verbs differ from auxiliary verbs in that they cannot undergo inversion and they cannot take not as a postdependent. The verbs have and do can function as auxiliary verbs or as light verbs (or as full verbs). When they are light verbs, they fail the inversion and negation diagnostics for auxiliaries, e.g.
Note that in some dialects (for example, the West and South West dialects of Hiberno-English
), the inversion test may sound correct to native speakers.
a. They had a long meeting.
b. *Had they a long meeting? - Light verb had fails the inversion test.
c. *They had not a long meeting. - Light verb had fails the negation test.
a. She did a report on pandering politicians.
b. *Did she a report on pandering politicians? - Light verb did fails the inversion test.
c. *She did not a report on pandering politicians. - Light verb did fails the negation test.
Sometimes the distinction between auxiliary verbs and light verbs is overlooked or confused. Certain verbs (e.g., used to
, have to
, etc.) may be judged as light verbs by some authors, but as auxiliaries by others.
Most clauses can contain zero, one, two, three, or perhaps even more auxiliary verbs.
The following example contains three auxiliary verbs and one dispositive participle:
The paper will have been scrutinized by Fred.
The auxiliary verbs are in bold and the dispositive (i.e. head
) participle is underlined. Together these verbs form a verb catena
(chain of verbs), i.e., they are linked together in the hierarchy of structure and thus form a single syntactic unit. The participle scrutinized
provides the semantic core of sentence meaning, whereby each of the auxiliary verbs contributes some functional meaning. A single finite clause can contain more than three auxiliary verbs, e.g.
Fred may be being judged to have beendeceived by the explanation.
Viewing this sentence as consisting of a single finite clause, it includes five auxiliary verbs. From the point of view of predicates
constitute the core of a predicate, and the auxiliary verbs contribute functional meaning to these predicates. These verb catenae are periphrastic
forms of English, English being a relatively analytic language
. Other languages, such as Latin, are synthetic
, which means they tend to express functional meaning with affixes
, not with auxiliary verbs.
The periphrastic verb combinations in the example just given are represented now using the dependency grammar
tree of the sentence; the verb catena is in green:
The particle to is included in the verb catena because its use is often required with certain infinitives. The hierarchy of functional categories is always the same. The verbs expressing modality appear immediately above the verbs expressing aspect, and the verbs expressing aspect appear immediately above the verbs expressing voice. The verb forms for each combination are as follows:
English allows clauses with both perfect and progressive aspect. When this occurs, perfect aspect is superior to progressive aspect, e.g.
- ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, defines an auxiliary verb as "a verb used to form the tenses, [grammatical mood/moods], [grammatical voice/voices], etc. of other verbs." OED Second Edition, 1989. Entry for auxiliary.
- ^ Anderson, Gregory D. S. (2006-06-08), "The Origins of Patterns of Inflection in Auxiliary Verb Constructions", Auxiliary Verb Constructions, Oxford University Press, pp. 302–389, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199280315.003.0007, ISBN 978-0-19-928031-5
- ^ Concerning the use of coger as an auxiliary in Spanish, see for instance https://chimichurris1ba.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/manual-sintaxis-1c2ba-bachillerato.pdf.
- ^ Concerning the use of werden as an auxiliary in German, see for instance Engel (1994:114).
- ^ Concerning sein as an auxiliary in German used to form perfect tense/aspect, see Eroms (2000:138f.)
- ^ Concerning the selection of avoir or être as the auxiliary verb to form perfect tense/aspect in French, see Rowlett (2007:40f.).
- ^ Concerning être as the auxiliary used to build the passive voice in French, see Rowlett (2007:44f.).
- ^ Concerning auxiliaries forming a closed class, see Kroeger (2004:251).
- ^ That the equivalents of have and be are perhaps the most widely acknowledged auxiliaries across languages (related to English) can be verified by glancing at the literature on auxiliaries, e.g., Engel (1994:104ff.), Eroms (2000:137ff.), Rowlett (2007:24ff.).
- ^ Concerning the term semi-auxiliaries for French, see Warnant (1982:279).
- ^ Anderson, Gregory D. S. 2015. “Areal-typological perspectives on the morphosyntax of auxiliary verb constructions in Dravidian languages.” In G. K. Panikkar, B. Ramakrishna Reddy, K. Rangan and B. B. Rajapurohit (eds.) V. I. Subramoniam Commemoration Volume I. Studies on Dravidian. Thiruvanathapuram: International School of Dravidian Linguistics , pp. 61-79.
- ^ For lists of the auxiliary verbs like the one produced here but with minor discrepancies, see for instance Radford (2004:324), Crystal (1997:35), and Jurafsky and Martin (2000:322).
- ^ For some discussion of the status of dare as a "marginal modal", see Fowler's Modern English Usage, p. 195f.
- ^ Green, Lisa J., 1963- (2002). African American English : a linguistic introduction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-07823-4. OCLC 57572547.
- ^ Green, Lisa J. & Walter Sistrunk. 2015. Syntax and Semantics in African American English. In Jennifer Bloomquist, Lisa J. Green & Sonja L. Lanehart (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199795390.013.15. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199795390.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199795390-e-15 (10 June 2020).
- ^ For examples of the inversion diagnostic used to identify auxiliaries, see for instance Radford (1997:50f., 494), Sag and Wasow (1999:308f.), and Kroeger (2004:253).
- ^ The negation diagnostic for identifying auxiliary verbs is employed for instance by Radford (1997:51), Adgar (2003:176f.), and Culicover (2009:177f.).
- ^ Jurafsky and Martin (2000:320) state clearly that copula be is an auxiliary verb. Bresnan (2001:18f.) produces and discusses examples of subject-auxiliary inversion using the copula. Tesnière (1959) repeatedly refers to the copula être in French as an auxiliary verb, and Eroms (2000:138f.) discusses the copula sein in German as a Hilfsverb 'helping verb'. Crystal (1997:35) lists be as an auxiliary verb without distinguishing between its various uses (e.g., as a copula or not). Other definitions are less clear; Radford (2004:324) suggests that copula be is not an auxiliary, but he does not address why it behaves like an auxiliary with respect to the criteria he employs (e.g., inversion) for identifying auxiliaries.
- ^ Concerning light verbs in English, see Allterton (2006:176).
- ^ Light verbs are called Funktionsverben 'function verbs' in German - see Engel (1994:105f.) and Eroms (2000:162ff.).
- ^ Jurafsky and Martin (2000:22), for instance, lists have as a modal auxiliary when it appears as have to and Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996:195) lists used to as a "marginal modal".
- ^ See Finch (2000:13) concerning the necessity that a given auxiliary verb should accompany an infinitive or participle.
- ^ Dependency trees like the ones here can be found, for instance, in Osborne and Groß (2012) Take note that other authors consider closed-class words to be the heads of open-class complements, for instance determiners heads of common nouns. These dependency trees represent the opinion of the authors and not of all Dependency Grammar authorities.
- Allerton, D. 2006. Verbs and their Satellites. In Handbook of English Linguistics. Aarts 7 MacMahon (eds.). Blackwell.
- Adger, D. 2003. Core syntax. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Anderson, Gregory D. S. 2011. Auxiliary Verb Constructions (and Other Complex Predicate Types): A Functional-Constructional Typology. Language and Linguistics Compass 5 (11): 795–828.
- Bresnan, J. 2001. Lexical-Functional Syntax. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
- Culicover, P. 2009. Natural language syntax. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Crystal, D. 1997. A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics, 4th edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
- Engel, U. 1994. Syntax der deutschen Sprache, 3rd edition. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag.
- Eroms, H.-W. 2000. Syntax der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Finch, G. 2000. Linguistic terms and concepts. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Fowler's Modern English Usage. 1996. Revised third edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Jurafsky, M. and J. Martin. 2000. Speech and language processing. Dorling Kindersley (India): Pearson Education, Inc.
- Kroeger, P. 2004. Analyzing syntax: A lexical-functional approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Lewis, M. The English Verb 'An Exploration of Structure and Meaning'. Language Teaching Publications. ISBN 0-906717-40-X
- Osborne, T. and T. Groß 2012. Constructions are catenae: Construction Grammar meets Dependency Grammar. Cognitive Linguistics 23, 1, 165–216.
- Radford, A. 1997. Syntactic theory and the structure of English: A minimalist approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Radford, A. 2004. English syntax: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Rowlett, P. 2007. The syntax of French. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Sag, I. and T. Wasow. 1999. Syntactic theory: A formal introduction. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
- Tesnière, L. 1959. Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.
- Warnant, L. 1982. Structure syntaxique du français. Librairie Droz.
Last edited on 10 June 2021, at 10:37
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