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Chapter 11: Auxiliaries, Modals, and Phrasal Modals

In this chapter we describe the patterns of two kinds of verbs which form part of the verb group: auxiliaries and modals. We also include here phrasal modals, that is, phrases which behave like modal verbs. This chapter contains:

  • 1 Auxiliary verbs: be, do, get, and have 2 Modal verbs e.g. may, must, should, will 3 Phrasal modals e.g. be able to, had better, would rather
1 Auxiliaries

There are four verbs which are sometimes auxiliary verbs: be, do, get, and have. They are used mainly to add meaning to a main verb, for example by forming a continuous tense, a passive, a negative, or an interrogative. They are also used to add meaning to a clause, for example by helping to form question tags.

Like other verbs, auxiliaries have tenses, some of which are formed with other auxiliaries. For example, in the clause She has been singing for two hours, the auxiliary be is used in the pattern AUX -ing, that is, been singing. However, the auxiliary be itself has a tense formed by the auxiliary have in the pattern AUX -ed, that is, has been.

DIAGRAM HERE

Another example is the clause Our boat was being thrown around like a toy, where the auxiliary be is used in the passive pattern AUX -ed, that is, being thrown. However, that auxiliary itself has a tense formed by the auxiliary be in the pattern AUX -ing, that is, was being. The verb group in this clause therefore contains two forms of the auxiliary verb be.

DIAGRAM HERE

Looking at this from another point of view, when an auxiliary is followed by an `-ing' form, an `-ed' form, or a to-infinitive form, that form may itself be that of an auxiliary verb which is followed by another verb. For example, in the clause She has been arrested, the auxiliary have is used in the pattern AUX -ed, that is, has been. However, be is also an auxiliary, used here in the pattern AUX -ed, that is, been arrested.

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In this chapter, we use the terms `-ing' form, `-ed' form, and to-infinitive form to indicate either a single main verb with that form, such as liking, liked, or to like, or an auxiliary with that form together with the main verb following it, such as being liked, been liked, or to be liked.

Auxiliary verbs are made negative by putting not after them, as in She is not swimming, They did not know, or He has not written to you. In spoken English and informal written English, not is usually contracted to n't and is added to the auxiliary: He hasn't written to you.

The interrogative of verb groups formed with auxiliary verbs is made by placing the Subject after the auxiliary verb, as in Is she swimming? or Has he not written to you?. If the n't form of the negative is used, the Subject comes after that: Hasn't he written to you?

Auxiliary verbs have the following patterns:

*AUX -ing

He is swimming.
*AUX to-inf

She is to arrive at six.
*AUX neg inf

Don't go!
*AUX n inf

Did they remember?
*AUX inf

Do come in.
*AUX -ed

She got knocked down.
*AUX

She's probably earning more than I am.
*cl AUX n

She hasn't finished, has she?
*so/nor/neither AUX n

...so do I.
*AUX n -ed

Had I known...

AUX -ing

The auxiliary verb be is followed by the `-ing' form of another verb. The auxiliary and the other verb together form the verb group.

  Auxiliary-ing form  
SubjectVerb   Completive
Iambeing punished.  
Hewasdrivingtoo quickly.
Sheiswritinga novel.

This pattern is used to form continuous tenses.

  • Darkness was coming, a pink glow above the rooftops.
  • He was being questioned at a police station in London.
  • Everybody is complaining about the recession.
  • An air and sea rescue operation has been going on all day for the crew of a fishing trawler which sank in the English Channel.
AUX to-inf

The auxiliary verb be is followed by the to-infinitive form of another verb. The two verbs are in phase and form a complex verb group.

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  Auxiliary verbto-infinitive  
SubjectVerb   Completive
The talksareto begintomorrow.
Sheisto be congratulated.  
Hewasto becomePresident.

This pattern is used to talk about something that will happen, something that should happen, something that would happen under certain conditions, or something that has happened, seen from the viewpoint of a time before it happened, and when it was not expected.

  • The Prime Minister is to get a full briefing on the release of the hostages next week.
  • She said if she didn't get back by six, I was to call the police.
  • What is to be done?
  • If you were to rub a piece of plastic with a cloth, you would produce static electricity.
  • He needs to pull his socks up if he is to make a success of his England career.
  • Other reformers such as Thomas Spence, who was to become a more significant radical influence at a later date, substituted phonetic for conventional spellings in their writings.
AUX neg inf

The auxiliary verb do is followed by the negative not and the bare infinitive form of another verb. The auxiliary and the other verb together form the verb group.

  Auxiliary verbnegativeinfinitive  
SubjectVerb...Negative...VerbCompletive
Hedidnotlikecakes.
  Donotopenthe box.

This pattern with do is used to make negative forms of verbs in the simple present and the simple past tenses, and to make negative imperatives.

  • Franklin did not want Wilson to resign.
  • He does not have a name until much later in the story.
  • Don't ever call this number again.
AUX n inf

The auxiliary verb do is followed by a noun group and the bare infinitive form of another verb. The auxiliary and the other verb together form the verb group. The noun group is the Subject.

Auxiliary verbnoun groupinfinitive  
Verb...Subject...VerbCompletive
Doyoulikechocolate?
Didshebreakher leg?

This pattern with do is used to make questions with verbs in the simple present and the simple past tenses.

  • What do you mean?
568 Does she love you?
  • Where did they find the money?
AUX inf

The auxiliary verb do is followed by the bare infinitive of another verb. The auxiliary and the other verb together form the verb group.

  Auxiliary verbinfinitive  
SubjectVerb   Completive
Idounderstand.  
  Dohaveanother biscuit.

This pattern is used to add emphasis to a verb in the simple present or the simple past tense, for example because it contrasts with something that has previously been said or implied. It is also used to invite someone politely to do something.

  • He doesn't say too much, but what he does say either enhances the absurd humour or the spectacle.
  • Well, as a matter of fact, I did want to talk to you about something.
  • Do sit down.
AUX -ed

The auxiliary verb is followed by the `-ed' form of another verb. The auxiliary and the other verb together form the verb group.

  Auxiliary verb-ed form  
SubjectVerb   Completive
Theywereeatenby rats.
Wegotmarriedin September.
Hehasfinishedhis work.

This pattern has four uses.

1 The auxiliaries be and get are used with this pattern to form the passive. Be is used much more frequently in this way than get.

  • Doctors believe more research is needed into the spread of the disease.
  • No suspects have been picked up yet by police.
  • `Did I get you into trouble?' she asked. He laughed. `No. I got teased a bit,' he added.

2 The auxiliary have is used with this pattern to form perfect tenses.

  • Mount Pinatubo has blanketed the countryside with volcanic ash, up to half a meter deep.
  • Jupe picked one of the magazines up and leafed through it. Someone had inserted a slip of paper halfway through to mark a place.
  • Having established his business in San Francisco in the 1960s, he travelled to England with the simple objective of catching up with contemporary British design.

The verb have is also used with the `-ed' form of the auxiliary be to form perfect continuous tenses. This pattern is AUX been -ing.

  • So far Indonesia has been accepting all boat people arriving on its shores - some twelve hundred each month.
569 3 The auxiliary get is used with this pattern, but without making a passive, to indicate that an action, usually something difficult, is successfully achieved. This is an informal use.
  • He spoke in a hasty, nervous way, as if once he had got started he was afraid that he might be interrupted.
  • Until I get warmed up it's difficult to run and there's pain.

4 The to-infinitive form of the auxiliary verb be is used with this pattern, usually with the verbs found, heard, or seen to indicate that people can find, hear, or see something somewhere.

  • Most of his works are to be found in the area around Arezzo.
  • There's hardly a tree to be seen.
AUX

The auxiliary verb is used with nothing following it, or with just not following it, when confirming or contradicting a statement, in short answers to questions, or following comparatives. This pattern is used with the auxiliaries be, do and have.

  • `I'm keeping my piranhas,' Paul said. `No you're not,' said his mother. `Yes I am,' said Paul.
  • `Is Debbie coming to see us tomorrow?' `Yes, she is.'
  • `Governor Clinton never indicated during the campaign that he supported a gasoline tax.' `No, he didn't.'
  • You'd imagine that I'd learn with age but I don't.
  • `You've never even seen it!' `Yes I have,' snapped Betty.
  • My grandparents were very poor and they wanted their kids to do better than they had.
cl AUX n

The auxiliary verb follows a clause and is followed by a noun group. The noun group is the Subject of the auxiliary verb. It is usually a personal pronoun.

clauseAuxiliary verbnoun group
ClauseVerbSubject
She isn't laughing,isshe?
You live in Birmingham,don'tyou?
They hadn't been arrested,had they?

This pattern is used with be, do, and have to form question tags, which ask the hearer or reader to confirm a statement. A negative statement is always followed by a positive question tag. A positive statement may be followed by a negative or a positive question tag. A negative question tag following a positive statement indicates that the information is considered to be shared. A positive question tag following a positive statement indicates that the information is not considered to be shared, but is something that the hearer alone has the right to confirm or deny.

In the case of be and have, the clause before the question tag contains a verb group formed with be or have as an auxiliary. In the case of do, the clause contains a verb group formed with do as an auxiliary, or a verb without an auxiliary.

  • He isn't wearing shorts, is he?
  • Ah, you're making an assumption there, are you?
  • You liked Gil, didn't you?
  • They'd moved up here before you were born, had they?
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so/nor/neither AUX n

The auxiliary verb follows one of the conjunctions so, nor, or neither and is followed by a noun group. The noun group is the Subject of the auxiliary verb.

so/nor/neitherAuxiliary verbnoun group
ConjunctionVerbSubject
SoamI.
NordidJohn.
Neitherhadthey.

This pattern is used with be, do, and have to indicate a situation that is similar to one mentioned in a previous clause, but with a different person involved.

  • `I'm working at home on Wednesday.' `So am I.'
  • He never spoke of my mother; nor did my aunt or my grandmother.
  • `I've never been to Alcatraz.' `Neither have I.'
This pattern, with nor, is also used to confirm a previous clause. This is a formal use. In spoken English, the stress is on the auxiliary rather than the Subject.
  • He confirmed there and then: `I will never race again.' Nor did he.
AUX n -ed

The auxiliary verb had is followed by a noun group and the `-ed' form of another verb. The noun group is the Subject. This pattern is always used with another clause, which comes before or after this one.

Auxiliarynoun group-ed  
Verb...Subject...VerbCompletive
HadIknown...  
Hadsherememberedher lines...

This pattern is used to indicate a situation that might have happened but did not. Its meaning is similar to the meaning of a clause beginning with if, but this pattern is more formal.

  • The captain of the boat did not want to leave; he wanted to remain on his vessel and try and do something. Had he remained, he would have gone down with his boat.
  • Kay didn't know of the affair he was having with a younger woman, but she probably would not have done anything about it had she known.
2 Modals

There are eleven modal verbs in English. They are used to add meaning to a main verb, for example to indicate how certain or possible something is, or how frequently something happens, or whether a course of action is recommended or allowed.

571 can could dare may might must need shall should will would

Unlike ordinary verbs and auxiliary verbs, modal verbs do not change their form depending on the Subject. For example, you say I must and He must.

Unlike ordinary verbs and auxiliary verbs, modal verbs do not change their form to indicate tense, although could, should, and would are sometimes considered to be the past equivalents of can, shall, and will. It is better, however, to think of these words as different verbs, not as different forms of the same verb, because they have very different meanings. The pattern MODAL have -ed is sometimes used to talk about something in the past, as in She must have seen him.

Modal verbs are made negative by putting not after them, as in She might not be happy, or You should not go. In spoken and informal written English, not is usually contracted to n't and is added to the modal: You shouldn't go. The negative form of can is cannot. In spoken and informal written English this is usually contracted to can't. Similarly, shall not is usually contracted to shan't and will not to won't.

The interrogative of verb groups formed with modal verbs is made by placing the Subject after the modal verb, as in Might she be happy? or Should you not go? If the n't form of the negative is used, the Subject comes after that: Shouldn't you go?

The modal verbs dare and need also occur as main verbs. In He doesn't dare climb the tree, dare is a main verb, but in He dare not climb the tree, dare is a modal verb.

There are two main patterns associated with modal verbs:

*MODAL inf

She must be mad.
*MODAL have -ed

She must have missed the bus.

MODAL inf

The modal verb is followed by the bare infinitive form of another verb. The two verbs together form the verb group. The bare infinitive may be be followed by an `-ed' form or an `-ing' form.

  Modal verbinfinitive  
SubjectVerb   Completive
Ican'ttellyou that.
Shecould notlieto him.
Wemaybe facinga catastrophe.
Final decisionsshallbe takenin the future.
The buildingshouldreopensoon.

All the modal verbs are used with this pattern, with a variety of meanings. These include:

  • expressing certainty or uncertainty about a situation e.g. could, might, must
  • saying what sometimes happens e.g. can, may
  • talking about an obligation e.g. must, need, should
  • talking about ability e.g. can, could
  • saying what someone dare do
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  • talking about future possibilities e.g. may, shall, will
  • talking about permission e.g. can, may, might
  • talking about something hypothetical e.g. should, would
  • Insect stings can be nasty but they aren't usually dangerous.
  • The British Airways desk clerk said she could not accept me on to the plane unless I showed my passport.
  • We dare not let that happen again.
  • And many thanks to Debbie Licorish for her calm manner and eye for detail. Finally, may I thank Tony Green for all his support and good humour during the most trying of times.
  • Might I ask what you're doing here?
  • He had decided she must have some idea of what was going on.
  • Only those who have been misbehaving or who have something to hide need worry.
  • If you don't want to talk to me, I shan't try to force you to.
  • Maybe you should see a doctor, get something to help you sleep.
  • So will interest rates keep rising?
  • If this became known, he would be lucky to escape with his life.
MODAL have -ed

The modal verb is followed by have and the `-ed' form of another verb. The three verbs together form the verb group. The `-ed' form may be of the auxiliary verb be, with another verb following it. In this chapter we treat the auxiliary be and the following verb together as the `-ed' form. (See Section 1 above.)

  Modal verbhave-ed  
SubjectVerb     Completive
Hemusthaveforgottenhis lunch.
Sheshouldhaverememberedhis name.
Iwouldhavebeen toldearlier.

This pattern is used with all the modal verbs except dare, with a variety of meanings. These include:

  • drawing a conclusion about the past e.g. can(not), may
  • drawing a conclusion about the present e.g. will, would
  • talking about something that was possible but did not happen e.g. could, might
  • talking about something that will be true in the future e.g. shall, should
  • talking about something that you think was unnecessary or that you disapprove of e.g. need (not), would (not)
  • If Jane had shouted back, she could have won the day. Sadly, she didn't.
  • The picture came out of a magazine or newspaper. Some kids got hold of it and it may have been passed around the school.
  • If this had happened, he might have drunk less and been a better statesman.
  • At one time Berti's place must have been part of the cottage.
  • She needn't have worried.
  • I would never have done what they did.
Other related patterns

In addition to the two patterns described above, modal verbs are used in two patterns that are the same as those used with auxiliary verbs.

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MODAL

The modal verb is used with nothing following it, or with just not following it, when confirming or contradicting a statement, in short answers to questions, or following comparatives. (See AUX inf in Section 1 above.) All the modal verbs except dare and need are used in this pattern.

  • His mother could no more relax than he could.
  • `You'll never see it,' he said. `Yes, he will,' said a voice.
cl MODAL n

The modal verb follows a clause and is followed by a noun group which is the Subject. This forms a tag question. ( See cl AUX n in Section 1 above.) All the modal verbs are used in this pattern.

  • You'll look after me, won't you, Mama?
3 Phrasal modals

Phrasal modals are phrases which form a single verb group with another verb and which affect the meaning of that verb in the same way that a modal verb does. In the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary they have the label PHR-MODAL.

Some phrasal modals begin with be or have: be able to, be bound to, be going to, be liable to, be meant to, be supposed to, be sure to, be unable to, have got to, and have to. The first word in these phrases changes its form depending on the Subject and the tense, in the way that be and have normally do. You say I am liable to panic and She is liable to panic, We have to leave tonight and They had to leave last night. The other phrasal modals do not change in this way. You say I would rather go by bus and He would rather go by bus.

Most phrasal modals are made negative by putting not after the first word in the phrase, as in He is not able to be with us or You ought not to eat so quickly. However, had best, had better, would rather, would just as soon, and would sooner are made negative by putting not after the whole phrase, as in You had best not go by yourself or I would just as soon not go by myself. The negative of would do well to is made by putting not after well, as in She would do well not to forget that. The phrasal modal used to has three negative forms: used not to, didn't used to, and didn't use to.

The interrogative of verb groups formed with most phrasal modals is made by placing the Subject after the first word in the phrase, as in Have you got to go? or Would you sooner stay? The interrogative form of have to is do you have to, as in Do you have to go? The interrogative form of used to is did you used to, as in Did you used to eat sweets?.

Phrasal modals have the following patterns:

*MODAL inf

I have to go.
*MODAL

Go if you have to.
*MODAL inf than/as inf

I'd rather die than surrender.
*MODAL that

I'd rather you didn't.

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MODAL inf

The phrasal modal is followed by the bare infinitive of another verb. The phrasal modal and the infinitive together form the verb group.

  Phrasal modalinfinitive  
SubjectVerb   Completive
Sheis able tosit upin a wheelchair.
Theywere going toshootsomething.
Heused toshoutat people.

All the phrasal modals have this pattern.

  • The deep-sea diving is bound to take me away a good deal, but I know when it's time to settle down, then I'll be looking to come back here.
  • `Maybe we ought to explore the mountain a little,' said Ginger to Steve.
  • It was supposed to last for a year and actually lasted eight.
  • We need good health and circulation of our blood and we would do well not to add salt to our food at all.
be able to had best had better be bound to be going to have got to have to be liable to be meant to ought to would rather would just as soon would sooner be supposed to be sure to be unable to used to would do well to
MODAL

The phrasal modal is used with nothing following it, when the verb it refers to is clear from the immediately preceding context.

  • `It's not really improving anything.' `No, but perhaps it's not meant to.'
  • I've never had a tremendous social life; I tend not to put that first. I ought to, but politics comes first.
  • I felt I could no longer bully and whip people into line like a foreman is supposed to.
  • I wish I could run about like I used to, and I love dancing. Well, I can't do that any more.
In the case of would rather and would sooner, the phrasal modal is usually followed by not, and the pattern is MODAL not.
  • `Don't tell me if you'd rather not,' he said.
  • They'll be delighted if you'd like to come, but of course we'll understand it if you'd sooner not.
be able to had better be bound to be going to have got to have to be meant to ought to would rather would sooner be supposed to be sure to be unable to used to
MODAL inf than/as inf

The phrasal modal is followed by the bare infinitive of another verb, than, and the bare infinitive of another verb. In the case of would just as soon, as is used instead of than. The phrasal modal and the two infinitives form a co-ordinated verb group.

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  Phrasal modalinfinitive   than/asinfinitive  
SubjectVerb...   CompletiveCo-ordinator...VerbCompletive
I would rather die   than surrender.  
He'd just as soondance   aseat.  
Theywould soonerbuysweetsthaneata proper meal.

This pattern is used with phrasal modals which indicate what someone prefers.

  • I would rather be honest with people than mislead them that there is going to be some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
  • The average villain today would just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • I would sooner give up sleep than miss my evening class.
would rather would just as soon would sooner
MODAL that

The phrasal modal is followed by a that-clause. The phrasal modal by itself is the verb group and the that-clause is a new clause, with its own structure.

  Phrasal modalthat-clause
SubjectVerbClause
Iwould ratherthat the theory was stated.
I'd soonerwe said it.

This pattern is used to indicate what someone would like to happen.

  • Most of what he's marked on the printout has behind it the opinion: I would rather that the broadcasters had not said this.
In the case of would just as soon and would sooner, the that-clause never begins with the word that.
  • I'd just as soon you put that thing away.
  • I'd sooner he grinned and bore it. He can have a two month rest in the summer.
In this pattern the that-clause is often co-ordinated with another clause using than or as.
  • The police would rather you played safe than ended up being sorry.
would rather would just as soon would sooner