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In linguistics, an auxiliary (also called helping verb, helper verb, auxiliary verb, or verbal auxiliary, abbreviated aux) is a verb functioning to give further semantic or syntactic information about the main or full verb following it. In English, the extra meaning an auxiliary verb alters the basic form of the main verb to have one or more of the following functions: passive, progressive, perfect, modal, or dummy.
In English, every clause has a finite verb which consists of a full verb (a non-auxiliary verb) and optionally one or more auxiliary verbs, each of which is a separate word. Examples of finite verbs include write (no auxiliary verb), have written (one auxiliary verb), and have been written (two auxiliary verbs). Many languages, including English, feature some verbs that can act either as auxiliary or as full verbs, such as be ("I am writing a letter" vs "I am a postman") and have ("I have written a letter" vs "I have a letter"). In the case of be, it is sometimes ambiguous whether it is auxiliary or not; for example, "the ice cream was melted" could mean either "something melted the ice cream" (in which case melt would be the main verb) or "the ice cream was mostly liquid" (in which case be would be the main verb).
Functions of the English auxiliary verb
The auxiliary verb be is used with a past participle to form the passive voice; for example, the clause "the door was opened" implies that someone (or something) opened it, without stating who (or what) it was. Because many past participles are also stative adjectives, the passive voice can sometimes be ambiguous; for example, "at 8:25, the window was closed" can be a passive-voice sentence meaning, "at 8:25, someone closed the window", or a non-passive-voice sentence meaning "at 8:25, the window was not open". Perhaps because of this ambiguity, the verb get is sometimes used colloquially instead of be in forming the passive voice, "at 8:25, the window got closed."
The auxiliary verb be is used with a present participle to form the progressive aspect; for example, "I am riding my bicycle" describes what the speaker is doing at the very moment of utterance, whereas "I ride my bicycle" is a temporally broader statement.
Properties of the English auxiliary verb
Auxiliaries take not (or n't) to form the negative, e.g. cannot (can’t), will not (won’t), should not (shouldn’t), etc. In certain tenses, in questions, when a contracted auxiliary verb can be used, the position of the negative particle n't moves from the main verb to the auxiliary: cf. Does it not work? and Doesn't it work?. This has not always been the case as the following sentence from Jane Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice' indicates: 'The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?'.
Auxiliaries invert to form questions:
- "You will come."
- "Will you come?"
The dummy auxiliary do is used for emphasis in positive statements (see above):
- "I do like this beer!"
Auxiliaries can appear alone where a main verb has been omitted, but is understood:
- "I will go, but she will not."
The verb do can act as a pro-VP (or occasionally a pro-verb) to avoid repetition:
- "John never sings in the kitchen, but Mary does."
- "John never sings in the kitchen, but Mary does in the shower."
Auxiliaries can be repeated at the end of a sentence, with negation added or removed, to form a tag question. In the event that the sentence did not use an auxiliary verb, a dummy auxiliary (a form of do) is used instead:
- "You will come, won't you?"
- "You ate, didn't you?"
- "You won't (will not) come, will you?"
- "You didn't (did not) eat, did you?"
- "You (do) know how to dance, don't you?"
In Indo-European languages, the verb "to have" is the most common auxiliary used for perfect tenses. Interlingua has inherited this use of the verb. Some languages use "to be" for the perfect forms of some or all verbs (in Esperanto, for example, Mi estis irinta (I was having-gone = I had gone). French, German, and Dutch use it for verbs of motion and becoming, and (in German and Dutch) for "to be" itself, as does Italian. The use of auxiliaries is one variation among Romance languages. English uses "to be" only with "to go" in some senses.
Finnish, a Uralic language, uses olla (to be) for all verbs: Sillä niin on Jumala maailmaa rakastanut (Because so is God the world loved); it lacks an equivalent of the verb to have. Finnish also has a negative auxiliary verb ei, which conjugates like all Finnish verbs; thus:
- "I understand" is Ymmärrän
- and "I do not (don’t) understand" is En ymmärrä
- where the action verb is non-finite
Similar negative auxiliary verbs are found in Nivkh and the Salish and Chimakuan languages formerly spoken in northwestern North America. Salish and Chimakuan languages also have interrogative auxiliary verbs that form questions in the same manner as negative verbs do negated statements.
In many non-Indo-European languages, the functions of auxiliary verbs are largely or entirely replaced by suffixes on the main verb. This is especially true of epistemic possibility and necessity verbs, but extends to situational possibility and necessity verbs in many indigenous languages of North America, indigenous Australian languages and Papuan languages of New Guinea.
- ^ Nancy Harrison (1985). Writing English: a user's manual. Taylor & Francis. p. 104. ISBN Writing English: a user's manual.
- ^ James R. Hurford (1994). Grammar: a student's guide. Cambridge University Press. p. 20. ISBN 0521456274.
- The English Verb 'An Exploration of Structure and Meaning', Michael Lewis. Language Teaching Publications. ISBN 0-906717-40-X