flesl.net grammar glossary::primary verbs

primary verbs

• The three primary verbs, be, have, and do, make up one of the two categories of auxiliary verbs; the other category is the modal auxiliaries. Unlike the modals all the primary auxiliaries can also be used as main verbs. The primary verbs are also unlike the primary auxiliaries in that they appear in both present and past tenses, and in the passive voice. When they are being used as auxiliaries, the primary verbs, like the modals, are function words (or “closed-system items”) and have no dictionary (or “lexical”) meaning, only a grammatical function.

• The auxiliaries be and have are used to form the compound verb “tenses,” and be is also used in forming the passive voice. For example, in the sentence, Harry is talking to Jane, the auxiliary “is” indicates that the verb phrase is progressive, and in the sentence, Harry has not talked to Jane, the auxiliary “has” indicates that the verb phrase is perfective.

• Often, more than one primary verb is used as an auxiliary in a single verb phrase, for example in the sentence, Harry has been questioned by the police several times, the verb phrase includes two primary auxiliaries. Less common are verb phrases with three primary verb auxiliaries, but they do occur. For example, Harry had been being questioned by the police for three hours when we arrived. (Here the first auxiliary indicates that the verb phrase is in the past perfect ‘tense,’ the second that it is in the past perfect progressive, and the third that it is in the passive voice.)

• The auxiliary do does not indicate tense or voice. It is used only as an “operator.“ That is to say, it is used, to produce certain grammatical structures, in particular questions and negative statements. For example, the question, Did Harry go to bed? and the negative, Harry didn’t go to bed, are formed buy using “do” as an operator. The other primary auxiliaries also have operator functions. For example in, Is Harry going to bed soon? the placement of the word “is” before the subject indicates that the sentence is a question and in, Harry has not gone to bed, the insertion of the particle “not” between the auxiliary and the main verb indicates that the sentence is a negative. (Notice that in the case of a sentence with more than one auxiliary, it is always the first auxiliary which acts as the operator.)

• One way of understanding how the primary auxiliary do works is to see it as a “dummy” operator. The idea is that we don’t need it to make a sentence like Harry is talking to Jill, into a question because we already have the operator “is” ready to do this job. When we have a simple verb phrase however, there is no operator ready, so we have to bring in do as a dummy. This way of looking at things perhaps makes it easier to understand the use of do in “tag endings,” as in Harry invited Sarah, didn’t he?; emphatic constructions, as in “You're wrong,”Jill told Jane, “Harrydid go to the party; and in reduced clauses, for example, Harry went to the party, but Sarah didn’t.