Diagnostics For Identifying Auxiliary Verbs in English
The verbs listed in the previous section can be classified as auxiliaries based upon two diagnostics: they allow subject–auxiliary inversion (the type of inversion used to form questions etc.) and (equivalently) they can take not as a postdependent (a dependent that follows its head). The following examples illustrate the extent to which subject–auxiliary inversion can occur with an auxiliary verb but not with a full verb:
- a. He was working today.
- b. Was he working today?
- a. He worked today.
- b. *Worked he today?
- a. She can see it.
- b. Can she see it?
- a. She sees it.
- b. *Sees she it?
(The asterisk * is the means commonly used in linguistics to indicate that the example is grammatically unacceptable.) The following examples illustrate that the negation not can appear as a postdependent of a finite auxiliary verb, but not as a postdependent of a finite full verb:
- a. Sam would try that.
- b. Sam would not try that.
- a. Sam tried that.
- b. *Sam tried not that.
- a. Tom could help.
- b. Tom could not help.
- a. Tom helped.
- b. *Tom helped not.
A third diagnostic that can be used for identifying auxiliary verbs is verb phrase ellipsis. Auxiliary verbs can introduce verb phrase ellipsis, but main verbs cannot. See the article on verb phrase ellipsis for examples.
Note that these criteria lead to the copula be being considered an auxiliary (it undergoes inversion and takes postdependent not, e.g. Is she the boss?, She is not the boss). However, if one defines auxiliary verb as a verb that somehow "helps" another verb, then the copula be is not an auxiliary, because it appears without another verb. The literature on auxiliary verbs is somewhat inconsistent in this area.
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