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English Auxiliaries are ESSENTIAL, NICE, and ORDERLY. Keep them simple and in good company! Part 1

English Auxiliaries are ESSENTIAL, NICE, and ORDERLY. Keep them simple and in good company! Part 1

In the previous post we:

    1. Showed why there is no future tense in English.
    2. Indicated thatthe English verb phrase cannot be understood properly, nor will we be able to interact with others in English, if we do not have it clear in our minds that there are two main groups of verbs:
      • Lexical
      • Auxiliary

To elaborate on the second point, in this post we’ll consider:

    • Why English Auxiliaries are ESSENTIAL in ways that Spanish Auxiliaries are not.

and in the following two, we are going to:

    • See why ALL English AUXILIARIES are NICE and ORDERLY.
    • Hint at possible ways of helping our students visually see how to remember “the way it goes in English” and
      • show why focusing on just the verb phrase is not helpful to communicate in English.

 1. Why English Auxiliary Verbs are ESSENTIAL in ways that Spanish Auxiliaries are not.  

We can identify three main types of Auxiliaries in the English Verb Phrase (excluding auxiliary verbal idioms and catenative verb constructions, which in Spanish are usually known as “periphrastic verbal constructions’’)

Auxiliaries help us express nuances regarding time and modality, they play a significant role in the English verb phrase, and are essential in interactions


We all know the distinction Spanish makes for “be”: “ser/estar” and for “have”: “tener/ haber.” Yet, there is more to it than meets the eye, as can be seen in the examples that follow:

  • They can both have meaning of their own as lexical verbs:

I am a teacher = soy maestra/profesora

I am at home = estoy en casa

You have a great sense of humour = tienes un gran sentido del humor


It’s cold today = Hace frío hoy

I’m cold= tengo frío

There’s some tea made= Hay té hecho

I always have a tea in the morning = siempre tomo té por las mañanas.

They can add time nuances when we use them as AUXILIARIES in the Verb Phrase, helping the lexical verb to express:

“Aspect”, i.e., time subtleties in terms of:

    • Duration: usually an ongoing, often temporary, event around a present or past time:

 I’m writing the post at the moment= en estos momentos estoy escribiendo el post

You’re being obtuse! =Estás un poco densa, ¿no?

I was cooking dinner when they unexpectedly arrived= estaba haciendo/preparando la cena cuando se presentaron de improviso (sin esperarlos)

I was walking along the beach when I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for ages = Iba caminando por la playa cuando me encontré (me topé) con un viejo amigo al que no veía desde hacía siglos. 

    • Completion: up to an implicit point in the present time (now) or an explicit point in the past:

They’ve given 3 concerts so far= Han dado (llevan dados) 3 conciertos hasta ahora

Thousands of displaced people had fled to relative safety by the time of the first attacks = Miles de desplazados habían ya huído a lugares relativamente seguros para el comienzo de los ataques.

    • A combination of both:

Britain & the EU had been holding talks for months until they finally reached an agreement =Gran Bretaña y la UE llevaban manteniendo conversaciones desde hace meses hasta que por fin llegaron a un acuerdo

Russia has been directing  waves of missiles at critical infrastructure in Ukraine= Rusia está lanzando/lleva lanzando oleadas de misiles dirigidos a golpear/para dañar la infraestructura clave de Ucrania desde hace meses.

“Passive Voice” (auxiliary “be”), i.e., change in the perspective of the event or situation:

Whitby Abbey was built in the 13th – 14th centuries on the grounds of the 7th century’s Northumbrian monastery= La abadía de Whitby se construyó en los siglos XIII y XIV sobre un monasterio del siglo VII en lo que fué Northumbria.

No one had been hurt before, until yesterday’s attack= hasta el ataque de ayer, nadie antes había resultado herido.


This “DUMMY” Auxiliary may be considered:

  • “Primary” because there is the lexical verb “DO” that generally expresses the idea of “carrying out/ performing” something and collocates with certain nouns or noun phrases. In this case, it generally corresponds in Spanish with “hacer”.

Yet, as we well know, the distinction English makes between “MAKE” and “DO” causes a lot of problems for Spanish speakers.

Some of those problems might be simplified by focusing on teaching language chunks and collocations in context.

  • As an Auxiliary, however, it only has three forms: DO/DOES/DID and we call it “Dummy” because it adds no meaning or nuance. Its sole but ESSENTIAL function is to implement the NICE properties, as we’ll see in Part 2.

No such auxiliary exists in Spanish, which has an entirely different way of constructing its verb phrase:

Does he ever do his homework on his own? = ¿Hace alguna vez los deberes él solo?


Modal Auxiliaries are JUST AUXILIARIES that express “MODALITY”.

  • Like all the other Auxiliaries, they both help and need the lexical verb.
  • That they express “modality” means that when there is a modal in the verb phrase, the speaker is both expressing a message concerning a subject and their judgement or opinion about it.

In Spanish, “Modality”, according to the “Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española. Sintaxis II’’( RAE 2009), is understood as the “linguistic manifestation of the speaker’s attitude in connection with the content of the message”, i.e., “la manifestación lingüística de la actitud del hablante en relacion con el contenido de los mensajes.” (See Ch 42.1a Page 3,113).

Spanish expresses this semantic nuance through a variety of verbal forms, which we shall, at least briefly, consider when we deal with Modal Auxiliary verbs in English. But Modals, of course, deserve a post of their own.

Surely you can guess which Auxiliary type is which in the illustration, can’t you?

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