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Precisely when is a verb linking or an auxiliary?



I remember chuckling with knowing delight when, sometime ago, a Forum member asked in machine-gun fashion these grammar questions that are so basic yet defy quick and easy answers:

“Can you please tell me if the verb ‘have’ is ever used as an auxiliary in the present tense? As full verb, it can be used in a sentence like ‘I have a book.’ Is that correct?

“The verb ‘be’ in the simple present tense can be used as an auxiliary, as in ‘Windows are made of glass.’ Is that correct?

“The verb ‘do’ in the simple present tense can be used as an auxiliary, as in ‘Does he play tennis?’ Is that correct?

“Are ‘have,’ ‘be’ and ‘do’ considered noncontinuous verbs?”

I replied to the Forum member that if I attempted to answer those questions quickly in that order, I probably would create more bedlam than understanding about the behavior of English verbs. So I said it would be more instructive to begin by first defining the grammar terms involved.

Recall that a main verb is a word or phrase that describes an action, condition or experience. It either (a) denotes what the subject of a sentence is doing or has done, like the verb “sing” in “She sings a love song” and “watch” in “They watched the parade”; or (b) indicates a state or situation of that subject, like the verb “were” in “We were stunned by the testimony of the senator’s former bodyguard ” and “exudes” in “She exudes self-composure despite the mounting evidence against her.”

An auxiliary verb or helping verb pairs off with a main verb to form its tenses, voice and modality, as the auxiliary “has” in “She has denied guilt” where it works to form the present perfect tense of the verb “denied.” On the other hand, a linking verb just connects the subject of a sentence to its complement, as the linking verb “be” (in its past-tense form “were”) in “They were lovers for seven years.” Take note that auxiliary verbs always need a main verb to function, but linking verbs are stand-alones that don’t need one.

This brought me to an excellent position to answer the Forum member’s questions.

First, about “have”: It can either be a main verb or an auxiliary verb: It definitely works as a main (stand-alone) verb in “I have a book” to denote possession. However, “have” can never be used as an auxiliary in the present tense; it can only be used in the perfect tenses, as in “The alleged drug lord and the lady senator’s lover have testified against her” (present perfect) and in “By early next year the first tranche of the social security pension increase shall have been implemented” (future perfect conditional).

Second, about “be”: It’s wrong to say that “be” (in the plural form “are”) works as an auxiliary in “Windows are made of glass.” Instead, “are” works in that sentence as a linking verb connecting the subject “windows” to the adjective complement “made of glass” (a state of the subject).

Third, about “do”: Yes, it works as an auxiliary in the question “Does he play tennis?” Indeed, this function of the auxiliary “do” enables the main verb to form such questions.

Fourth and last, about “have,” “be,” and “do”: Can they be considered noncontinuous verbs? In general, noncontinuous verbs like “hate” and “love” denote a state, not an action, so they can’t be used to express the continuous or progressive aspect. This is why it isn’t grammatically right to say “We’re hating that lying woman” nor “I’m loving it” (Remember that queasy burger slogan?).

As main verbs, “have,” “be” and “do” likewise can’t form the continuous or progressive aspect, so they are also considered noncontinuous verbs.

(Next: How to ask a question within a question)

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com, and on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/jacarillo. Follow him at Twitter.com: @J8Carillo. You may also email him at [email protected]

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