Auxiliary verbs

(Use of auxiliary verbs in English grammar)

Table of contents – auxiliary verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation of auxiliary verbs
  2. Use of auxiliary verbs
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are auxiliary verbs? (Explanation)

In English grammar, auxiliary verbs are generally needed to form compound tenses, questions, and negations as well as passive sentences. In all these constructions, they ‘help’ (support) main verbs. In addition to the regular auxiliaries, there are modal auxiliary verbs (often simply called modal verbs), which serve to introduce one’s attitude into a statement. Accordingly, English grammar differentiates between the following types of auxiliary verbs:

  1. Auxiliary verbs that are used for forming tenses, questions, negations, and passive constructions (for details see the section below):
    • to be
    • to do
    • to have
    • will
  2. Modal auxiliary verbs or modal verbs, which constitute a specific type of auxiliary verbs. The English language offers the following:
    • can/could
    • must
    • may/might
    • shall/should
    • will/would
    • ought to
    • need not
    • must not
      • Watch out! This phrase (must not) is a false friend.

How are auxiliary verbs used?

Except for the modal verbs, the auxiliary verbs are utilised as follows:

  • Use of English auxiliary verbs
    • … to form compound tenses:
      • Progressive tenses with ‘to be’:
        • “Peter and Sarah are swimming in the lake.”
        • “Sue was driving down the street when the accident happened.”
        • “We have been waiting for two hours.”
      • Perfect tenses with ‘to have’:
        • “Today, I have worked really hard.”
        • “The two boys have been playing tennis since eight o’clock.”
        • “Before we went on safari, I had prepared every little detail.”
      • Future tenses with ‘will’:
        • “I think the weather will be nice on the weekend.”
    • … to construct questions (interrogative sentences) with ‘to do’:
      • Do you like fish?”
      • Did you go to the concert last week?”
    • … to form negations with ‘to do’:
      • “Sorry, I can’t help you. I don’t know the way to the city hall.”
      • “What a surprise. We didn’t know that you were coming.”
    • … to construct passive statements (passive voice) with ‘to be’:
      • “The tunnel was built in 1980.”
      • “Jim disappeared and hasn’t been seen anymore.”
  • Note: Some of the auxiliary verbs can also function as main verbs:
    • Use of ‘to do’ as a main verb:
      • “We have been doing a lot of sports recently.”
      • “His mother does housework every Saturday.”
    • to be’ as a main verb:
      • “John and his brother are excellent tennis players.”
      • “The film was quite exciting.”
    • Use of ‘to have’ as a main verb:
      • “A friend of mine has an own yacht in the Caribbean.”
      • “Chris had a good idea.”
  • Information: Take a look at the specific explanation if you are unsure of how to distinguish between auxiliary and main verbs.

Further explanations relating to ‘Auxiliary verbs’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Use of auxiliary verbs in English grammar’ and might also help you: