• We can count as many as 23 auxiliary verbs in English


    How many auxiliary verbs are there in English?

    A South African member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Spelling thought there are only three, namely “do,” “be,” and “have,” and believing this to be the case, she recently asked for confirmation if it’s correct that their different forms are as follows: “do,” “does,” and “did’; “am,” “is,” and “are”; and “have,” “has,” and “had.”

    Here’s my reply to Spelling:
    It’s incorrect to say that there are only three auxiliary verbs in English, namely “do,” “be,” and “have” as you’ve listed. The count actually rises to as many as 23 when we include the so-called modal auxiliaries; however, “do,” “be,” and “have” indeed hold the distinction of being the three primary auxiliary verbs in the sense that they are the most commonly used.

    Your listing of the different forms of the auxiliary verb “do”—“does,” “do,” and “did”—is complete.  In the case of “have,” however, the progressive-tense form “having” has to be added to make a total of four: “has,” “have,” “had,” and “having.” And for “be,” you listed only its three present-tense forms “am,” “is,” and “are”; to these must be added the past tense forms “was” and “were,” the progressive tense form “being,” and the past-participle “been,” making a total of seven forms.

    Before making a complete accounting of the English auxiliary verbs, however, let’s agree first on a definition of the term “auxiliary verb.” A simple but instructive definition is that an auxiliary verb—also loosely called a “helping verb” or, more precisely, a “verbal auxiliary”—is one that enables or helps a main verb express tense, voice, emphasis, or modality. Another way of saying this is that an auxiliary verb adds functional or grammatical content to the information expressed by the main verb.

    As examples, in the sentence “They did take the loot,” the verb “did” works as an intensifier for the verb “take” to emphasize that the action was, in fact, done; in the sentence “He is being fooled,” the auxiliary verb “being” works with the linking verb “is” to form the present progressive passive tense of the main verb “fooled”; and in the sentence “She has taken my share of the cake,” the auxiliary verb “has” works with the past participle “taken” to form the present perfect tense of the verb “take.”

    To these primary auxiliary verbs we now must add the subclass of auxiliary verbs that, unlike the former, don’t inflect or can’t change form at all. These are the so-called modal auxiliaries, or modals for short. The most commonly used modals are “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” and “would”; less commonly used are “dare,” “need,” and “ought.”

    Functionally, a modal auxiliary or modal works with a main verb to express conditionality, necessity, obligation, ability, or wishful desire; it is unlike the typical auxiliary verb, which works with the main verb to denote voice, tense, or emphasis. In the sentence “She can speak French fluently,” for instance, the modal “can” works to convey the ability of the subject to speak French fluently. In the sentence “She does speak French fluently,” in contrast, the auxiliary verb “do” acts as an intensifier to emphasize the subject’s ability to, in fact, speak French fluently.

    Keep in mind, though, that the three auxiliary verbs “be,” “do,” and “have” can also function as main verbs. For instance, in the sentence “You be the one,” the verb “be” works as a main verb to denote asking someone to assume a certain role; in “She does all the work here,” the verb “does” functions as the main verb to denote performing all the work; and in “They have lots of money,” the verb “have” works as a main verb to denote possession of lots of money.

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    1. May I point out that the auxiliary verb “were” is often misused here in North America. People would erroneously say “If I was you, I would go now.”
      The correct way is : “If I were you, I would go now.” Been trying to tell “English speaking” Canadians and Americans they are wrong but my attempts at correction had been futile. The function of an auxiliary verb is to help out another verb. (“I do care about you.”)
      ‘Care’ is the main verb, ‘do’ is a helping verb.
      My thanks to my grammar teacher in college Mr. Patricio Diaz.

      • You’re absolutely right, Joel! That sentence indeed should take the subjunctive form “If I were you, I would go now.” But then whether among Canadians, Americans, or any other nationality, very few people actually know or get to learn the distinction between the subjunctive and the indicative moods. So for those similarly situated, I recommend checking out this 4-part posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, “Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive” (http://tinyurl.com/k23jlh8). It will be definitely worth their while doing so.

    2. In “They have lots of money”, the word “have” does not denote an action. Indeed, there is no object to receive an action. “Have” is therefore a copular verb, is it not?

      • No, “have” is used as a transitive verb in that sentence of mine, “They have lots of money,” with “money” as the direct object. It’s not used there as a copula or linking verb, which by definition is the connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition. You probably will still recall this substitution test to figure out what a linking verb is: if the verb can be replaced with a form of the verb “be” (“is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “been,” or “being”), then that verb is a linking verb. If not, then the verb in the sentence is an action verb. (Now try to replace “have” with each of those eight forms in the sentence in “They have lots of money.” If you succeed even just once, then I’ll admit I’m wrong.)

        A simple check with Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary would have saved you the trouble of publicizing this surprising gap in your knowledge about very basic English grammar. Here goes its definition of “have”:

        have (transitive verb)
        1 a : to hold or maintain as a possession, privilege, or entitlement (they have a new car) (I have my rights) b : to hold in one’s use, service, regard, or at one’s disposal (the group will have enough tickets for everyone) (we don’t have time to stay) c : to hold, include, or contain as a part or whole (the car has power brakes) (April has 30 days)

        have (verbal auxiliary)
        1 — used with the past participle to form the present perfect, past perfect, or future perfect (has gone home) (had already eaten) (will have finished dinner by then)
        2 : to be compelled, obliged, or required — used with an infinitive with to or to alone (we had to go) (do what you have to) (it has to be said)

        And one more thing: As you can see in the above definition, “have” does work as a verbal auxiliary or helping verb when used with the past participle or with the infinitive form, but never as a stand-alone copula in the sense that you had in mind in the sentence “They have lots of money.”

        I hope this settles the matter for you.