Filología Inglesa

Auxiliary verbs and modals


  • Introduction.

Verbs may be defined as important parts of the speech, even if they are not overtly present in our messages their meaning remains latent. So, for instance Eckersley observes that the verb is the most important part of the speech in the great majority of the sentences.

We can consider a verb according to the traditional definitions as:

A word that expresses something about a person, an animal or thing.

A part of the speech by which we are able to say what a person, animal or thing is or does, or what is done to that person, animal or thing.

The part of the speech that assists in predication asks a question or expresses a command.

  • Verb classification.

  • According to Quirk verbs can be classified in the two major types: Auxiliary verbs and lexical verbs.

    • Auxiliary verbs.

    Auxiliaries may be defined as their name indicates as helping verbs since they have no independent existence as verb phrases but only help to make up verb phrases. They must compulsorily be followed by a lexical verb and are structurally necessary for certain constructions, especially negatives and questions.

  • Primary auxiliaries.

  • They have a purely grammatical function and are inflectionally marked in the 3rd person singular. This group is made up by three: BE, HAVE, DO.

  • DO.

  • It is the most neutral of all the auxiliaries. It has no individual meaning but serves as an operator for the formation of the interrogative and the negative of the present simple and past simple tenses and also for emphasis or to convey a coherent style.

    There is also a lexical verb do (= perform) which has the full range of forms including the present participle doing and the past participle done.

    Do as an auxiliary verb is required in the following cases:

    • To form negative sentences when the verb is imperative, simple present or simple past.

    • In questions involving inversion where the verb is in the simple present or past tense. There is no do-periphrasis in positive wh-questions beginning with the subject ( What happened?) And in yes-no questions where inversion is not necessary. ( He said that?)

    • In emphatic expressions where the verb is simple present, simple past or imperative.

    Do sit down! He did say he would be here at six.

    You do look nice today!

    • In sentences with inversion caused by certain introductory words such as the negative adverbs never, hardly, etc, when the verb is in the simple present or past tense.

    Never did he think that the book would be finished.

    • To avoid repetition of a previous ordinary verb ( pro-form)

    • Comparisons: He sings better than you do.

    • Tag questions: You went to the doctor's, didn't you?

    • In short answers: Do you smoke? Yes, I do.

    Do as a lexical verb is used in:

    • How do you do?, is said by both parties after the introduction

    • Meaning be adequate in expressions such as: I haven't got a torch. Will a candle do?

    • Meaning it is not your business, it's not your concern in: It is nothing to do with you.

    • Meaning perform: in this case it constitutes a challenge for the Spanish student because it is difficult to distinguish between make and do.

    - talk about work: I must do the accounts..

    - When we won't say exactly what the activity is. What shall we do now! Do something!

    We use do to - To talk about longer and repeated activities

    - Before determiner + -ing form. Can you do the shopping.

  • Have.

  • As a primary auxiliary it is used for:

    • The formation of the perfective aspect by combining with past participles.

    • The formation of the causative ( have + object + P.P.): I had my car washed.

    It can also be used instead of a passive verb to convey the idea of accident or misfortune: He had two of his teeth knocked out in the match (Here the subject is the person who suffers the result of the action; in the previous example the subject was the person who orders something to be done.

    • It is used as an auxiliary for the expression of duties, obligation: have to.

    As a lexical verb it can be constructed either as an auxiliary ( without do periphrasis) or as a lexical verb ( with do-periphrasis). Depending on the meanings and the variety used (BrE or AmE) it will be constructed in one way or the other. It is used:

    • For the expression of possession: in this case it is constructed as an auxiliary verb in BrE but AmE prefers the do-construction.

    I haven't any books. (BrE)

    I don't have any books ( AmE)

    In BrE the normal spoken form (informal) uses got in the present. In AmE got forms are also possible in informal speech and have drops in very informal speech:

    (AmE) I(`ve) got a problem. (Have) you got a light?

    When it expresses an habitual action BrE also uses do periphrasis: Compare:

    I haven't got any whiskey. We don't usually have whiskey in the house.

    • It is also used as dynamic verb with the sense of receive, take, experience. Here it takes do-periphrasis in both AmE and BrE. Do you have a cup of tea for breakfast?

  • BE.

  • As an auxiliary:

    • Aspect auxiliary: to form continuous or progressive tenses.

    • Passive auxiliary

    • Be + infinitive:

    • To convey orders or instructions No one is to leave the building now.

    • Was/were + inf: conveys the idea of destiny: They said goodbye, little knowing they were never to meet again.

    • Be about to: immediate future: I am about to leave.

    As a lexical verb it has got many uses that do not coincide in Spanish and in English We use it in English to

    • Denote existence or giving information: He is a teacher.

    • To talk about age, weather condition, distance, time.

    • Be in the imperative can mean: pretend: You be the fairy godmother and I'll be Cinderella. Become: Be a good cooker!

    As lexical verb it may have do-periphrasis in:

    • Persuasive imperative sentences. Do be quiet!

    • Negative imperatives: Don't be naughty.

  • Modal auxiliaries.

  • General features of modal auxiliaries.

  • The group of properties that modals fulfil are the so called NICE properties:

    N: they make the negative with not, they do not need an operator.

    I: They do not take inversion to form interrogatives.

    C: They can express code on their own. Interrogatives do not need auxiliaries and they can form short answers on their own ( Yes, I can.)

    E: Emphasis

    Apart from these there are more features that modal auxiliaries share:

    • They do not have infinitive form, they do not take TO before them.

    • They are all followed by the infinitive which is bare except with ought o and used.

    • They do not have inflection in the third person singular of the present form.

    • Two modals can never go together: * I can must.

    • They are limited in the range of time reference.

    • They are negatively affected by overlapping: one single modal verb may be used for a multiple and varied set of communicative functions.

  • Classification of modality.

  • We have epistemic and deontic modality.

    EPISTEMIC: deduction, possibility, prediction.

    DEONTIC: obligation, advice, permission, prohibition.

  • Kinds of modal verbs.

    • CENTRAL: the typical, can, should…

    • SEMI-MODALS: sometimes they function as modals and sometimes they don't: need, dare.

    • MODAL IDIOMS: idioms that express modality: had better, would rather…

    • Central modals: CAN/COULD.

    • Ability: be able to, know how to, be capable of… He can play the guitar very well.

    • Theoretical Possibility: Can and could express general possibility as in You can sky on the hills (= it is possible because there is enough snow) or occasional possibility ( very much used related to people's behaviour) as in Measles can be dangerous (=Sometimes it is possible for them to be dangerous) My mother can be very shy.

    • Permission: It is used in much more informal situations than may. Another difference with may as related to permission is given in the following statements:

    • You may park here ( I give you permission)

      You can park here ( Could be mine or others permission)

    • MAY/MIGHT.

    • Factual Possibility: May/ might + present infinitive: It indicates a chance that something is possible: You may/might be right (=it is possibly true at the moment of speaking) He may/might tell his wife (=a chance that something will happen in the future).

    • Normally either can be used but, might increases the doubt ( might is not the past of may; it means possible but less likely)

      May is not used in the interrogative unless it occurs after a wh- particle, but it is better to use a paraphrase with to be likely to, do you think. Compare.

      * May he be at home? When may we expect you? (= When are you likely to arrive?

      May/might + perfect infinitive: It is used when you are not certain about a past action. When the uncertainty no longer exists in the present (i.e. something did not happen but it was possible) then only might + perfect infinitive is possible.

      You shouldn't have drunk that wine. It may have been drugged (=we are still uncertain if it has been drugged or not)

      You shouldn't have drunk that wine. It might have been drugged (=he or we know yet it wasn't drugged)

    • Permission: It is used for more formal and less common contexts than can. May emphasises and authoritarian overtone. ( See can)

    • There is a rare use of may as a quasi-subjunctive auxiliary to express wish, normally in positive sentences. May the best man win! May you have a long and happy life!

    • SHALL.

    • Shall is, on the whole and especially outside BrE, an infrequent auxiliary with restricted use compared with would, should, will. It is only in the first person of questions that it cannot be replaced by will. Shall I come now? * Will I come now?. Apart from this meaning of intention on the part of the speaker it has also other meanings although not very much used today.

      • Willingness on the part of the speaker in 2nd and 3rd person ( weak volition) He shall get his money. You shall do exactly as you wish.

      • Insistence ( strong volition) and legal: You shall do as I say. He shall be punished.

      Shall can also be used today to:

      • Express suggestions: Shall we go scuba diving?

      • In emphatic expressions: We shall go and we shall win.


      • Both are used to express obligation and logical necessity but they are less categorical than must and have to . Although they have similar meanings should is used in a more subjective way, you give the subjective opinion about something and ought to is for a more objective use. Compare:

        You should/ought to go and see Mary some time (=subjective opinion about something)

        We ought to go and see Mary tomorrow, but I don't think we will. ( “should” could not be possible here because you cannot give an advise to yourself knowing beforehand that you are not going to fulfil it)

        Followed by the continuous infinitive ( ought to/should + continuous infinitive) it refers to someone that is not fulfilling his obligation. He ought to be studying for his exam. He shouldn't be spending his time on the beach.

        Apart from the uses mentioned above Should is also used :

        • As a putative after certain expressions: I am sorry that this should have happened.

        • Tentative condition in conditional clauses: If you should change your mind, please let us know.

        • WILL/WOULD.

        • Both verbs express weak volition (He will help you if you ask him/ Would you excuse me?) and insistence (strong volition): He will do it whatever you say/ It's your own fault: you would take the baby with you.

          But they have independently other meanings:


          • Intention: In this case it is usually contracted. I'll write as soon as I can.

          • Prediction: The game will be finished.


          • Characteristic activity: Every morning he would go for a long walk.

          • Hypothetical meaning in main clauses: He would smoke too much if I didn't stop him.

          • Probability: That would be his mother.

        • MUST.

        • Obligation in the present tense (= be obliged to, have to). The past tense is supplied by had to . In this sense mustn't is not the negative, this form means not allowed to. To convey the idea of no obligation we should use don't have to, not be obliged to, needn't.

        • The difference between must and have to is seen in the following example:

          Mother: You must wipe your feet when you come in.( the speaker is the authority)

          Small boy: I have to wipe my feet every time I come in ( the speaker is not the authority)

          Must, used in the 1st person singular denotes the idea of urgency: I must phone my mother and tell her the news (=you feel that the obligation is something urgent)

        • Deduction: To say that something is logically necessary or that we suppose that it is certain.

        • There is an ambulance at Peter's door: he must be ill ( that is the only possibility since he lives alone)

          Must is not used in the negative, the negative is done with can't; and it is only used in the interrogative when carrying a deduction: It must be Tom. Why must it be Tom? Other people use that flat. In other cases Can is preferred for the interrogative.

        • Root necessity: this conveys the idea of something that is essential or necessary.

        • Plants must receive a good supply of sun and moisture.

        • USED TO

        • It always takes the to infinitive and occurs only in the past tense. It may take do-periphrasis, in which case the spellings didn't used to and didn't use to both occur. The interrogative construction used he to? is especially BrE; did he used to? is preferred in both AmE and BrE.

          It is used to express a state or habit that existed in the past but has ceased: He used to play cards a lot ( but he doesn't do it now).

          The difference between this verb and Would is that:

          • used to is used when there is a contrast between past and present: I used to smoke cigarettes, but now I use a pipe.

          • Would is used to express a past routine and pattern but there is no contrast with the present, it is just a description of someone's routine during a certain period: Every morning he would go for a walk (= there is no the idea that he does no longer do it)

        • : Semi-Auxiliaries: NEED & DARE.

        • Need and dare are considered semi-auxiliaries because they can be constructed either as modal auxiliaries ( with the bare infinitive and without any inflected -s form) or as lexical verbs ( with the to - infinitive and with the inflected form -s forms). The modal verb construction is restricted to non-assertive contexts (i.e. mainly negative and interrogative sentences) whereas the lexical verb construction can always be used and is in fact the more common.


          As an auxiliary verb in negative terms it indicates absence of obligation. It expresses the speaker's authority or advise and it is used for the present and the future:

          You needn't type your essay ( the speaker is the authority, it could be the teacher for example)

          But it can also take do-periphrasis and in this case it expresses absence of obligation as well but in this case the speaker is not the authority: you don't need to type your essay ( here it could be a conversation among classmates)

          As a lexical verb it means require : I need some money/ your hair needs cutting.


          It is not a common verb in informal style. But in few cases it is still common in spoken style:

          • In BrE the negative daren't is frequent: I daren't ask her.

          • Children to challenge each other to do frightening things: I dare you to ride your bike through the gate with no hands.

          • To discourage people from doing things they shouldn't: mummy can I draw a picture on the wall? - you dare !Don't you dare.

          • I dare say it will rain soon ( it will probably…)

          • How dare you? Take your hands off me immediately. ( Indignation)

          With this meaning do takes the do perphrasis.

          Since can has no passive form it is expressed by allowed to: I was allowed to park here.

          But may/might may form part of a question: Do you think he might not be able to wait?


          It also helps to convey the idea of wonder: How old may he be? Accompanied by well it is used idiomatically meaning there is a good reason for: you may say well so. And in adverbial clauses of concession it emphasises the aforementioned idea.


          If more people lived with him we couldn't use must but may.

          Need and dare as auxiliaries are probably more common in BrE than in AmE.

          Theme 20.

          Página 14 de 14

    Enviado por:Antonio Martínez
    Idioma: inglés
    País: España

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