Verbs: Auxiliary verbs

A key distinction in the word class of verbs is between main verbs (also called lexical verbs) and auxiliary verbs:

  • Main verbs convey the primary action, process or state.
  • Auxiliary verbs are sometimes called 'helping verbs' because they work alongside main verbs to assist in creating different meanings.

These semantic descriptions are a great starting point, particularly for younger children, but older children can use more sophisticated approaches to identifying auxiliary verbs.

First, auxiliary verbs are a closed class, which means that there is a limited number of them. Unlike main verbs, auxiliary verbs can be listed relatively easily.

Here are some examples of auxiliary verbs in sentences:

  • The cafe was called Steps. [S1A-015 #256]
  • I was wondering about that. [S1B-014 #92]

You can see that the auxiliary verbs come before the main verbs that they are helping. (The main verbs here are called and wondering.)

One important role of some auxiliary verbs, the aspectual auxiliaries be and have, is to express the notion of temporal aspect: whether an event or action expressed by a verb is ongoing or completed.

  • Events that are ongoing are expressed by the progressive aspect.
  • Completed events are expressed by the perfect aspect.

For example:

  • She is writing a play. (ongoing)
  • She has written a play. (completed)

Other auxiliary verbs include do, and modal auxiliary verbs like can and should:

  • Do you like pumpkin?
  • I can see you.
  • We should go now.

Auxiliary verbs share a number of characteristics referred to by the acronym NICE:

  • Negation
  • Inversion
  • Code
  • Emphasis


Auxiliary verbs take not or n’t to form negatives:

  • We won't do it.
  • They can't come.

In fact, if there isn't an auxiliary in a sentence, one must be added to make the sentence negative.

  • I cry becomes I don't cry.
  • I would cry becomes I would not cry or I wouldn’t cry


Auxiliary verbs are inverted with the Subject of the sentence to form questions.

  • I must eat vegetables becomes Must I eat vegetables?


Sometimes a shorthand – a kind of 'code' – can be used with auxiliaries. This happens when the main verb is left out if it has been used already:

  • John never sings, but Mary does [sing].


Auxiliaries can also be used to add emphasis.

  • I do like to be beside the seaside.

The verbs be, have and do can be main verbs or auxiliary verbs. We can see this by comparing some examples.

In the next three examples they are main verbs (is, have and did are the only verbs here):

  • Sarah is very friendly.
  • They have three children.
  • I did my exercises.

whereas in these examples they are auxiliaries helping other verbs:

  • Sarah is eating a sandwich.
  • They have travelled a long way.
  • Did you buy anything?


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