Auxiliary verbs Auxiliaries and modal auxiliaries

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Auxiliary verbs
Auxiliaries and modal auxiliaries

Principal auxiliaries

Modal auxiliaries


to be

can could

to need

to have

may might

to dare

to do

must had to



shall should

will would

Auxiliaries help to form a tense or an expression, hence the name. They combine with present or past participles or with infinitives to form the tenses of ordinary verbs:

I am coming. He has finished. I didn 't see them.
They combine with infinitives to indicate permission, possibility, obligation, deduction etc.:
He can speak French. You may go. We must hurry.

be + infinitive

A The be + infinitive construction, e.g. I am to go, is extremely important and can be used in the following ways:
1 To convey orders or instructions:
No one is to leave this building without the permission of the police. (no one must leave)
He is to stay here till we return. (he must stay)
This is a rather impersonal way of giving instructions and is chiefly used with the third person. When used with you it often implies that the speaker is passing on instructions issued by someone else. The difference between (a) Stay here, Tom and (b) You are to stay here, Tom is that in (a) the speaker himself is ordering Tom to stay, while in (b) he may be merely conveying to Tom the wishes of another person.
This distinction disappears of course in indirect speech, and the be + infinitive construction is an extremely useful way of expressing indirect commands, particularly when the introductory verb is in the present tense:
He says, 'Wait till I come.' = He says that we are to wait till he comes.
or when there is a clause in front of the imperative:
He said, 'If I fall asleep at the wheel wake me up.' = He said that if he fell asleep at the wheel she was to wake him up.
It is also used in reporting requests for instructions:
'Where shall I put it, sir?' he asked = He asked where he was to put it.
2 To convey a plan:
She is to be married next month.

The expedition is to start in a week's time.
This construction is very much used in newspapers:
The Prime Minister is to make a statement tomorrow.
In headlines the verb be is often omitted to save space:
Prime Minister to make statement tomorrow.
Past forms:
He was to go. (present infinitive)

He was to have gone. (perfect infinitive)
The first of these doesn't tell us whether the plan was carried out or not. The second is used for an unfulfilled plan, i.e. one which was not carried out:
The Lord Mayor was to have laid the foundation stone but he was taken ill last night so the Lady Mayoress is doing it instead.
B was/were + infinitive can express an idea of destiny:
He received a blow on the head. It didn 't worry him at the time but it was to be very troublesome later. (turned out to be/proved troublesome)

They said goodbye, little knowing that they were never to meet again. (were destined never to meet)
C be about + infinitive expresses the immediate future:
They are about to start. (They are just going to start/They are on the point of starting.)
just can be added to make the future even more immediate:
They are just about to leave.
Similarly in the past:
He was just about to dive when he saw the shark.
be on the point of + gerund has the same meaning as be about + infinitive, but is a shade more immediate.

be to denote existence, be + adjective
A be is the verb normally used to denote the existence of, or to give information about, a person or thing:
Tom is a carpenter. The dog is in the garden.

Malta is an island. The roads were rough and narrow.

Gold is a metal. Peter was tall and fair.
B be is used to express physical or mental condition:
I am hot/cold. He was excited/calm.

They will be happy/unhappy.
With certain adjectives, e.g. quiet/noisy, good/bad, wise/foolish, it is possible to use the continuous form of be, e.g. Tom is being foolish, to imply that the subject is showing this quality at this time. Compare Tom is being foolish, which means Tom is talking or acting foolishly now, with Tom is foolish, which means that Tom always acts or talks foolishly. Similarly, The children are being quiet means they are playing quietly now, but The children are quiet might mean that they usually play quietly.
Other adjectives include:

annoying generous/mean

cautious/rash helpful/unhelpful

clever/stupid irritating

difficult mysterious

economical/extravagant optimistic/pessimistic

formal polite

funny selfish/unselfish
With some of these, e.g. stupid, difficult, funny, polite, the continuous form may imply that the subject is deliberately acting in this way:
You are being stupid may mean You are not trying to understand.

He is being difficult usually means He is raising unnecessary objections.

He is being funny usually means He is only joking. Don't believe him.

She is just being polite probably means She is only pretending to admire your car/clothes/house etc.

have as an auxiliary verb
have + object + past participle
A This construction can be used to express more neatly sentences of the type 'I employed someone to do something for me'; i.e. instead of saying I employed someone to clean my car we can say I had my car cleaned, and instead of I got a man to sweep my chimneys ('got' here = paid/persuaded etc.), we can say I had my chimneys swept.
Note that this order of words, i.e. have + object + past participle, must be observed as otherwise the meaning will be changed: He had his hair cut means he employed someone to do it, but He had cut his hair means that he cut it himself some time before the time of speaking (past perfect tense).
When have is used in this way, the negative and interrogative of its present and past tenses are formed with do:
Do you have your windows cleaned every month? ~ I don't have them cleaned; I clean them myself.

He was talking about having central heating put in. Did he have it put in in the end?
It can also be used in continuous tenses:
I can't ask you to dinner this week as I am having my house painted at the moment.

While I was having my hair done the police towed away my car.

The house is too small and he is having a room built on.
Get can be used in the same way as have above but is more colloquial. Get is also used when we mention the person who performs the action:
She got him to dig away the snow. (She paid/persuaded him to dig etc.)
(have with a bare infinitive can be used in the same way, e.g. She had him dig away the snow, but the get construction is much more usual in British English.)
B The have + object + past participle construction can also be used colloquially to replace a passive verb, usually one concerning some accident or misfortune:
His fruit was stolen before he had a chance to pick it can be replaced by

He had his fruit stolen before he had a chance to pick it, and
Two of his teeth were knocked out in the fight can be replaced by

He had two of his teeth knocked out.
It will be seen that, whereas in A above the subject is the person who orders the thing to be done, here the subject is the person who suffers as a result of the action. The subject could be a thing:
The houses had their roofs ripped off by the gale. get can also replace have here:

The cat got her tail singed through sitting too near the fire. (The cat's tail was singed etc.)
had better + bare infinitive
had here is an unreal past; the meaning is present or future:
I had/I'd better ring him at once/tomorrow. (This would be a good thing to do/the best thing to do.)
The negative is formed with not after better:
You had better not miss the last bus. (It would be unwise to miss it, or I advise/warn you not to miss it.)
had here is usually contracted after pronouns and in speech is sometimes so unstressed as to be almost inaudible. had better is not normally used in the ordinary interrogative, but is sometimes used in the negative interrogative as an advice form:
Hadn 't you better ask him first? = Wouldn 't it be a good thing to ask him first?
you had better is a very useful advice form:
You had better fly. (It would be best for you to fly, or I advise you to fly.)
In indirect speech had better with the first or third person remains unchanged; had better with the second person can remain unchanged or be reported by advise + object + infinitive:
He said, 'I'd better hurry' = He said (that) he 'd better hurry.

He said, 'Ann had better hurry' = He said (that) Ann had better hurry.

He said, 'You'd better hurry' = He said (that) I'd better hurry or He advised me to hurry.
have + object + present participle
A This expression is often used with a period of future time:
I’ll have you driving in three days. (As a result of my efforts, you will be driving in three days.)
It can also be used in the past or present:
He had them all dancing. (He taught/persuaded them all to dance.)

I have them all talking to each other. (I encourage/persuade them all to talk to each other.)
It can be used in the interrogative:
Will you really have her driving in three days?
but is not often used in the negative.
B If you give all-night parties you 'll have the neighbours complaining.

(The neighbours will complain/will be complaining.)

If film-stars put their numbers in telephone books they'd have everyone ringing them up. (Everyone would ring/would be ringing them up.)
you'll have in the first example conveys the idea 'this will happen to you'. Similarly they'd have in the second example conveys the idea 'this would happen to them'.
If you don't put a fence round your garden, you 'll have people walking in and stealing your fruit. (People will walk in and steal/will be walking in and stealing it, i.e. this will happen to you.)
The construction can be used in the interrogative and negative:
When they move that bus stop, you won't have people sitting on your steps waiting for the bus any more.
This structure is chiefly used for actions which would be displeasing to the subject of have, as in the above example, but it can be used for an action which is not displeasing:
When he became famous, he had people stopping him in the street and asking for his autograph = When he became famous, people stopped him in the street and asked for his autograph.
But I won't have + object + present participle normally means 'I won't/don't allow this':
I won't have him sitting down to dinner in his overalls. I make him change them. (I won't/don't allow him to sit down etc.) This use is restricted to the first person.
have as an ordinary verb
have meaning 'possess' and 'suffer (from) pain/illness/disability'
A Examples:
He has a black beard. I have had this car for ten years.

Have you got a headache? ~ Yes, I have.

The twins have mumps. He has a weak heart.
have meaning 'take' (a meal), 'give' (a party) etc.
A have can also be used to mean:
'take' (a meal/food or drink, a bath/a lesson etc.)

'give' (a party), 'entertain' (guests)

'encounter' (difficulties/trouble)

'experience', 'enjoy', usually with an adjective, e.g. good.

We have lunch at one.

They are having a party tomorrow.

Did you have trouble with Customs?

I hope you 'II have a good holiday.
B have when used as above obeys the rules for ordinary verbs:
It is never followed by got.

Its negative and interrogative are made with do/did.

It can be used in the continuous tenses.
We are having breakfast early tomorrow. (near future)

She is having twenty people to dinner next Monday. (near future)

/ can't answer the telephone; I am having a bath. (present)

How many English lessons do you have a week? ~ I have six.

You have coffee at eleven, don't you? (habit)

Ann has breakfast in bed, but Mary doesn 't. (habit)

Will you have some tea/coffee etc.? (This is an invitation. We can also omit Will you and say Have some tea etc.)

Did you have a good time at the theatre? (Did you enjoy yourself?)

Have a good time! (Enjoy yourself!)

I am having a wonderful holiday.

I didn 't have a very good journey.

Do you have earthquakes in your country? ~ Yes, but we don't have them very often.

may used for permission: forms
may for all persons in the present and future.

might in the conditional and after verbs in a past tense.

Negative: may not/mayn't, might not/mightn't

Interrogative: may I? might I? etc.

Negative interrogative: may I not/mayn't I? might I not/mightn't I? etc.

Other forms are supplied by allow, be allowed.
can used for permission: forms
can for all persons in the present and future.

could for past and conditional.

Negative: cannot/can't, could not/couldn't

Interrogative: can I? could I? etc.

Negative interrogative: can I not/can't I? could I not/couldn 't I? etc.

Other forms are supplied by allow, be allowed.
may and can used for permission in the present or future
A First person
I/we can is the most usual form:

I can take a day off whenever I want.
I/we may meaning 'I/we have permission to . . .' is possible:

I may leave the office as soon as I have finished.
But this is not a very common construction and it would be much more usual to say:

I can leave/I'm allowed to leave . . .
I/we may/might is a little more usual in indirect speech:

'You may leave when you've finished,' he says/said = He says we may leave/He said we might leave . . .
But in colloquial speech we would use can/could:

He says we can leave/He said we could leave.
B Second person
Here may is chiefly used when the speaker is giving permission. You may park here means 'I give you permission to park'. It does not normally mean 'The police etc. allow you to park' or 'You have a right to park'.
can can be used as an informal alternative to may here. But it can also be used to express the idea of having permission. You can park here can mean 'I allow it/The police allow it/You have a right to park here'.
Similarly You can take two books home with you can mean 'I allow it/The library allows it' and You can't eat sandwiches in the library can mean 'I don't allow it/The librarian doesn't allow it' or 'It isn't the proper thing to do'.
could can be used when there is an idea of condition:
Why don't you ring him? You can/could use my phone.
could is also used in indirect speech introduced by a verb in a past tense:
He said I could use his phone.
C Third person
may can be used as in B above when the speaker is giving permission:
He may take my car. (I give him permission to take it.)

They may phone the office and reverse the charges. (I give them permission.)
But it is chiefly used in impersonal statements concerning authority and permission:

In certain circumstances a police officer may (= has the right to) ask a driver to take a breath test.

If convicted, an accused person may (= has the right to) appeal.

SCRABBLE RULES: No letter may be moved after it has been played.

In informal English can/can't would be used:
He can take the car.

They can phone the office.

A police officer can ask a driver . . .

An accused person can appeal.

No letter can be moved . . .
could or was/were allowed to for permission in the past; could can also express general permission in the past:
On Sundays we could (= were allowed to) stay up late.
When a particular action was permitted and performed we use was/were allowed instead of could:

I had a visa so I was allowed to cross the frontier.
couldn't however can be used a little more widely than could:
We couldn 't bring our dog into the restaurant. The opposite of this would be:

We were allowed to bring etc.
For perfect and continuous tenses and passives allowed must be used:
Since his accident he hasn't been allowed to drive.

As a child he had been allowed to do exactly what he liked.

Requests for permission
A can I?, could I?, may I?, might I? are all possible and can be used for the present or future, can I? is the most informal. could I? is the most generally useful of the four, as it can express both formal and informal requests.

may I? is a little more formal than could I? but can also be used for both types of requests.

might I? is more diffident than may I? and indicates greater uncertainty about the answer.
B The negative interrogative forms can't I? and couldn't I? are used to show that the speaker hopes for an affirmative answer: Can't I stay up till the end of the programme? Couldn 't I pay by cheque? may and might are not used in this way.
C Answers to can I/could I requests will normally be:

Yes, you can. Yes, of course (you can). No, you can't.
Affirmative answers to may I/might I requests are normally: Yes, you may. Yes, of course (you may).

For a negative answer No, you may not is possible but it would normally be replaced by a milder expression:

I'd rather you didn't. I'm afraid not.
D Questions about permission are expressed by can or am/is/are allowed to in the present and by could or was/were allowed to in the past:
Can Tom use the car whenever he likes?

Is Tom allowed to use the car . . . ?

Could students choose what they wanted to study?

Were students allowed to choose . . . ?
may/might for possibility
A Form

may/might for present and future.

might in the conditional and after verbs in the past tense.

Negative: may not/mayn't, might not/mightn't

Interrogative: see E below

Infinitive: to be + likely

B may/might + present infinitive can express possibility in the present or future:
He may/might tell his wife. (Perhaps he tells/will tell his wife.)

He may/might emigrate. (Perhaps he will emigrate.)

Ann may/might know Tom's address. (Perhaps Ann knows etc.)
Similarly with the continuous infinitive:

He may/might be waiting at the station. (Perhaps he is waiting at the station.)

He may/might be waiting at the station when we arrive. (Perhaps he will be waiting etc.)

C may or might for present or future possibility
Normally either can be used, might slightly increases the doubt. Note that in speech we can also indicate increased doubt by stressing may/might.
Tom may lend you the money (with a strong stress on may) implies that this is not very likely. Tom might lend you the money (with a strong stress on might) implies 'I don't think this is at all likely/ I think it is unlikely'.
D might must be used in the conditional and when the expression is introduced by a verb in the past tense:
If you invited him he might come.

I knew we might have to wait at the frontier.

He said he might hire a car. (indirect speech)
may/might + perfect infinitive
A This is used in speculations about past actions:
He may/might have gone = It is possible that he went/has gone or Perhaps he went/has gone.
might must be used when the main verb is in a past tense:
He said/thought that she might have missed the plane.
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