Primary Auxiliary Verbs  

What are the primary auxiliary verbs?

The “primaryauxiliary verbs are be, have, and do—they occur most commonly in English. They are also some of the trickiest to master, because each can also be used as a main verb in a clause, and each is able to conjugate to reflect plurality and tense as a result.
Be and have are used as auxiliaries to conjugate the continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous tenses. Do is used to make main verbs negative or to form interrogative sentences, and it can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence.
We will begin by examining these different conjugations, and then we’ll look more closely at how these verbs function as auxiliaries.

Conjugating be, have, and do

Because be, have, and do are able to function as main verbs, they must also be able to inflect for plurality and tense; it is important to know these conjugations, as they must be used correctly when the verbs function as auxiliaries.
Do conjugates as did (past tense), does (third-person singular present tense), done (past participle), and doing (present participle); have conjugates as had (past tense/participle), has (third-person singular present tense), and having (present participle).
Be, meanwhile, has seven conjugations:
  • am (first-person singular present tense);
  • are (first-person plural present tense, second-person singular/plural present tense, third-person plural present tense);
  • is (third-person singular present tense);
  • was (first-person singular past tense, third-person singular past tense); were (first-person plural past tense, second-person singular/plural past tense, third-person plural past tense);
  • been (past participle); and
  • being (present participle).
The following tables will help illustrate all these different conjugations. Note that only conjugations used in an auxiliary capacity have been included:
Be Conjugations
Form
Auxiliary example sentence
be
base form
"You must be joking."
am
first-person singular present tense
"I am moving to Germany next month."
are
first-person plural present tense
second-person singular/plural present tense
third-person plural present tense
"We are leaving tomorrow morning."
"Are you working later?"
"Where are they going?"
is
third-person singular present tense
"She is wondering where we're going."
was
first-person singular past tense
third-person singular past tense
"I was talking to my brother yesterday."
"It was raining quite hard last night."
were
first-person plural past tense
second-person singular/plural past tense
third-person plural past tense
"We were looking for a new place to live."
"You were thinking of running away?"
"When were they planning on electing a new president?"
been
past participle
"Everyone has been worrying about their jobs."
Have Conjugations
Form
Auxiliary Example sentence
have
base form
"I have been to this part of town before."
has
third-person singular present tense
"It has been raining for over an hour now."
had
past tense
"They had been confident in the project's success."
having
present participle
"Having worked his whole life, Larry relished the thought of retirement."
Do Conjugations
Form
Auxiliary Example sentence
do
base form
"Do be careful."
does
third-person singular present tense
"Does he know what he's talking about?"
did
past tense
"We didn't know any better."

Auxiliary Functions

Forming Tenses

The verbs be and have are used as auxiliary verbs to form different tenses of main verbs. Be is used on its own to form the continuous tenses, while have is used to form the perfect tenses. Both have and been (the past participle of be) are used together to form the perfect continuous tenses.
As we saw above, be and have both have multiple conjugations, all of which must be used correctly when they function as auxiliaries.

Present Continuous Tense (Progressive)

The present continuous tense is structured as am/is/are + the present participle of the main verb:
  • “I am working tomorrow.”
  • “She is living in New York.”
  • “They are trying to save some money.”

Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous tense is structured as was/were + the present participle of the main verb:
  • “I was cooking breakfast when she called.”
  • “We were talking on the phone at the time.”

Future Continuous Tense

The future continuous tense is structured as will be + the present participle of the main verb OR am/is/are + going to be + the present participle of the verb:
  • “I will be leaving in the morning.”
  • “I am going to be meeting with my professor later.”
  • “He is going to be studying abroad next year.”

Present Perfect Tense

The present continuous tense is structured as have/has + the past participle of main verb:
  • “I have lived here all my life.”
  • “She has studied for this exam for weeks.”
  • “They have tried to find a solution to the problem.”

Past Perfect Tense

The past continuous tense is structured as had + the past participle of the main verb:
  • “I had already made my fortune when I was your age.”
  • “We had seen that the results were constant.”

Future Perfect Tense

The future continuous tense is usually structured as will have + the past participle of the main verb:
  • “I will have finished by that time.”
  • “She will have sung with a professional orchestra before the tour begins.”
(Notice that have does not conjugate for the third-person singular in this tense.)

Present Perfect Continuous Tense

The present perfect continuous tense is structured as have been + the present participle of the main verb:
  • “I have been trying to reach you for over an hour.”

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

The past perfect continuous tense is structured as had been + the present participle of the main verb:
  • “We had been working through the night.”

Future Perfect Continuous Tense

The future perfect continuous tense is structured as will have been + the present participle of the main verb:
  • “I will have been working here for 10 years next week.”
(Notice that have does not conjugate for the third-person singular in this tense.)
You may have noticed that the future tenses also use the auxiliary verb will. This is one of the modal auxiliary verbs, which will be covered in a separate section.

Forming negative sentences with not

The most common way to make a verb negative is to use the adverb not. However, main verbs cannot take not on their own—they require an auxiliary verb to do this.

Using do

If a verb does not already use an auxiliary verb (i.e., to form one of the tenses above), we use the auxiliary verb do/does to make the main verb negative.
For example:
  • “I work on the weekends.” (affirmative sentence)
  • “She lives in the city.” (affirmative)
Notice that because the auxiliary verb do conjugates to reflect the third-person singular, the main verb of the sentence reverts back to its base form.
Likewise, if a sentence is in the past simple tense, do conjugates to did, and the main verb remains in the present-tense base form. For instance:
  • “He studied in Europe.” (affirmative simple past tense)

Using not with other tenses

If a verb is already using one or more auxiliary verbs to create a perfect, continuous, or perfect continuous tense, then it is the auxiliary closest to the subject that takes the word not. For example:
  • “I am working later.” (affirmative present continuous tense)
  • “I am not working later.” (negative present continuous tense)
  • “She had been living there for a month.” (affirmative past perfect continuous tense)
  • “She hadn’t been living there for a month.” (negative past perfect continuous tense)
  • “They will have been writing their dissertations for almost a year.” (affirmative future perfect continuous tense)
  • “They will not have been writing their dissertations for almost a year.” (negative future perfect continuous tense)

Errors with have not

A frequent error is to make the verb have negative in the present simple tense. We need to always remember that the present simple negative is do not (contracted as don’t) or, in third person singular, does not (contracted as doesn’t). For example:
If we say “I haven’t a dog,” we are using have as an auxiliary rather than as a main verb meaning “to possess”—in doing so, the main verb is now missing.
And, just as in the present simple negative, we need an auxiliary verb when using the past simple negative:

Have and have got

Have, when used as a main verb meaning “to possess,” means the same thing as the less formal have got. They can usually be used interchangeably, though not in every case.
In have got, have is acting as an auxiliary verb for got. Because of this, have is now able to take not in the negative present simple tense, usually contracted as haven’t (or hasn’t in the third-person singular):
  • “He has got an idea about what happened.” (affirmative present simple tense)
  • “He hasn’t got an idea about what happened.” (negative present simple tense)
  • “They’ve got a plan to increase sales.” (affirmative present simple tense)
  • “They haven’t got a plan to increase sales.” (negative present simple tense)

Forming interrogative sentences with subject-verb inversion

Inversion refers to the reversal of the normal position of the subject and the auxiliary verb of a clause. We cannot use subject-verb inversion with main verbs to create interrogative sentences—we have to either add the auxiliary verb do, or else invert an existing auxiliary verb.

Inversion with auxiliary do

When a sentence is in the present simple tense or past simple tense, we use the auxiliary verb do to form it into a question word. This is inverted with the subject, coming before it in the sentence. For example:
  • “John works across town.” (present simple tense declarative sentence)
  • Does John work across town?” (present simple tense interrogative sentence)
  • “They lived in an apartment.” (past simple tense declarative sentence)
  • Did they live in an apartment?” (past simple tense interrogative sentence)

Inversion with other auxiliary verbs

As we saw already, be and have are used to create the continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous verb tenses. In these cases, the auxiliary verb used to create the tense is inverted with the subject to create a question; if the verb is in a perfect continuous tense (and thus has two auxiliaries), then the first of the two auxiliary verbs is inverted. For example:
Present continuous tense:
  • “John is working across town.” (declarative)
  • Is John working across town?” (interrogative)
Past continuous tense:
  • “John was working across town.” (declarative)
  • Was John working across town?” (interrogative)
Present perfect tense:
  • “John has worked across town for a long time.” (declarative)
  • Has John worked across town for a long time?” (interrogative)
Past perfect tense:
  • “John had worked across town for a long time.” (declarative)
  • Had John worked across town for a long time?” (interrogative)
Present perfect continuous tense:
  • “John has been working across town for a long time.” (declarative)
  • Has John been working across town for a long time?” (interrogative)
Past perfect continuous tense:
  • “John had been working across town for a long time.” (declarative)
  • Had John been working across town for a long time?” (interrogative)

Errors with have

As we saw when forming the negative with not, we often run into errors when have is functioning as a main verb and the sentence is made into a question.
Just like any other main verb (with the exception of be), have cannot invert with the subject to form a question—it must take the auxiliary verb do to accomplish this, like we saw above. For example:
  • “You had a car when you lived in London.” (declarative)

Question words

The rules of inversion that we’ve seen above hold true even when a question word is used. For example:
  • Where is John working?”
  • Why has John been working across town?”
  • When did John work across town?”

Inversion of be

It is important to remember that we do not use do, does or did when be is a main verb. As we mentioned earlier, be is able to invert when it is functioning as a linking verb (meaning it is a main verb) as well as an auxiliary. For example:
  • “I am cold.” (declarative)
  • “They were all present.” (declarative)
The inversion of be also holds true when there is a question word, as in:
  • Why are you cold?”
  • When were they all present?”
  • Who is attending the party?”

Emphatic do

In addition to making interrogative sentences, do is also used as an auxiliary to create emphatic sentences. This is sometimes referred to as the emphatic mood, one of the grammatical moods in English. Its purpose in this case is not to add any new meaning to the sentence, but rather to emphasize the fact that something happened or someone did something.
Emphatic do comes before the main verb in a sentence. As is the case when do is used to create interrogative sentences, it takes the conjugation for tense or plurality, leaving the main verb in the base form. For example:
  • “I washed the dishes.” (no emphasis)
  • “I did wash the dishes.” (emphasizes the fact that the speaker washed the dishes)
  • “He looks like an honest man.” (no emphasis)
  • “He does look like an honest man.” (emphasizes the way the man looks)
As with interrogative sentences, however, we cannot use do when be is the main verb of the sentence:
  • “I am cold.” (no emphasis)

In imperative sentences

We can also use emphatic do in imperative sentences to add emphasis to a command, instruction, or request, though this usually adds a more formal or old-fashioned tone to the sentence. Unlike in declarative sentences, we can use emphatic do when be is a main verb of an imperative sentence. For example:
  • Do be careful!”
  • Do try to be quiet.”
  • “Please do avoid walking on the grass.”
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not one of the “primary” auxiliary verbs?





2. Which of the following is the correct conjugation of the verb be in the third-person present singular?





3. Which auxiliary verb is added to a make a verb negative in the present or past simple tense?





4. Identify the auxiliary verb used in the following sentence:
“Have you been working on this project for long?”







5. Which of the following is a function of do as an auxiliary verb?







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