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Describing language
Describing language

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3.1 Auxiliary verbs

Verbs like run, jump, think, ponder, love, hate, etc. are probably quite familiar to you. But there are also three particularly special verbs in English that deserve the spotlight: be, have and do. As you can see from the table below, be is more varied than the other verbs – it has three different forms that refer to the present (am, are and is), while most verbs have only two (for example, walk and walks). And it is unique in modern standard British English in having two forms to refer to the past (was and were).

Table 1
  be have do
  present past    
I am was have do
You are were have do
he/she/it is was has does
We are were have do
You are were have do
They are were have do
past   had did

All three of these verbs can be used on their own:

  • I have a good idea what he meant. (Here have = ‘possess’ or ‘own’)
  • The morning is my favourite time of day. (Sentences with be tell us something about the identity or characteristics of the subject: Pierre and Marie are French; London is expensive; camping is boring.)
  • She did her homework on the train. (Here do = ‘write’ or ‘complete’)

But when they are used with other verbs, be, have, and do are called auxiliary verbs; they act as ‘helpers’ (or ‘auxiliaries’) to add (grammatical) meaning to a sentence.

  • I had run at a consistent pace. (Here had + run = the action (to run) happened in the past)
  • He is waiting at the bus stop. (Is + waiting = the action (to wait) is happening now)
  • They do sell those new kitchen mixers. (Do + sell = to emphasise that the action (to sell) actually happens)

The box below summarises some of the ways auxiliaries ‘help’.

Box 1

Be + -ing

A multi-word verb can involve be (am, is, are, was, were) and the main verb, plus the bound morpheme -ing:

  • Everyone is wondering what to do next.
  • He was sitting by himself near the door.

These emphasise what is/was happening at a particular moment.

Have + -ed

Other multi-word verbs include have, has or had and the main verb in a past form:

  • They have lived there all their lives.
  • Elena had seen the film many times before.

These place the action within a particular period of time (up to now with have, or a point in the past with had).

Do/don’t + verb

Do frequently combines with other verbs to form multi-word verbs. It is used to make sentences negative:

  • Luis doesn’t like spinach.
  • They don’t remember being here before.

It is also used to form questions:

  • Do you speak Finnish?
  • Doesn’t he understand us?

You will look at this in more detail in Week 8.