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I'm having a hard time understanding why most people consider the infinitive to be and all of its verb base forms helping verbs. I've consulted multiple English grammar sites and forums, and most of them classify to be a helping verb in certain situations. This starkly contrasts my beliefs, and I want to if someone can distinguish the differences, if any, for me.

Linking verbs such as be, seem, remain, appear, feel are NOT helping verbs. Why? Because helping verbs are doing exactly that: helping; they are HELPING other VERBS, and linking verbs themselves are not action verbs, but verbs expressing a change in state or appearance. Therefore, any form of be and all other forms of linking verbs mustn't be considered helping verbs because they equate one part of the sentence with another and cannot be considered a main verb. Linking verbs expand upon the meaning of a sentence, and no action is being performed.

Consider this sentence: "They have been developing new methods to facilitate in-vitro fertilization."

The subject of the sentence is they, the present perfect tense is indicated by the use of the helping verb have, and been is acting only as a linking verb; "developing new methods . . ." is merely the participial phrase, modifying the subject they. Even though a helping verb follows the linking verb, I believe the linking verb must not be considered a "main verb" itself. The past participle been is not functioning as the main verb of the sentence, nor is the present participle developing; been is linking two parts of the sentence, and developing begins the participial phrase that modifies the subject they.

Helping verbs make more apparent their job when they do not precede a linking verb, but a past participle. Consider this sentence: "I have broken the window."

The subject of the sentence is I, the present perfect tense is indicated by the use of the helping verb have, and broken is a past participle functioning as the MAIN VERB to complete the verb string have broken. In uses like this where there are no copular verbs, the past participle can very well be regarded as functioning as a main verb. There are no copular verbs, so nothing is being described or closely defined, nor is anything acting as a complement; broken really is the only "verb" of the sentence, and the job of the helping verb have acknowledges this. This contrasts with uses involving linking verbs. I've read sentences such as "He was eating the toasted sandwich," and people have said that the verb was is acting as a helping verb, but this is wrong. Was is a LINKING VERB, nothing else: it is linking the description, "eating the toasted sandwich," to the subject of the sentence, he. The people who've said that it is a helping verb only say that because they believe that was eating itself is a verb phrase, and that it is not describing him, but acting as the "verb" of the sentence. These people are considering the action being expressed more closely than the linking verb's describing the subject of the sentence. You DO use a form of to be and a present participle to form a past progressive ACTION, yes, but these words' grammatical functions are not actions because there is a linking verb involved, and copulars equate parts of sentences with each other. You are forming the idea of something progressing in the past, something HAPPENING, but since a linking verb is used in the formation of that very idea, it is not expressing action, but linking something with something else. In this case, was is describing something that the subject, he, was doing—"eating the sandwich"— and is conjugated for the past progressive, hence was and not is, will be, or is going to. Basically, the meaning of the sentence is action, but the formation of the sentence is description.

Present participles cannot act as verbs themselves and are strictly adjectives, excluding their being used as gerunds, in which case they are nouns. They always follow linking verbs or precede the word they modify. Take the present participle burning; "the burning building" and "the building is burning" both contain the present participle functioning as an adjective. Whether they come before the part of a sentence they modify or follow a copular verb, present participles are adjectives, unless used as a gerund. You cannot use a present participle as a "main verb" as you would a past participle: "I have eating this sandwich" makes no sense, but "I have eaten this sandwich" does; have is the helping verb, and eaten is functioning as the main verb to complete the verb string "have eaten." You can say "I am eating this sandwich" or "I have/had/will have been eating this sandwich," but the fact still remains that all of those aforementioned constructions involve linking verbs, and no direct action is being expressed even though the meanings of those sentences CONVEY ACTION.

I just want to be enlightened on this as I had always regarded copulars as verbs that link parts of sentences with each other, but having read differing views and inputs about the status of linking verbs in regard to their function, I don't know whether they can, in certain situations, be considered auxiliary or helping verbs. Until recently, I had never read about copulars acting as auxiliaries or helpers, so this is one big area of confusion for me. All that I have described is how I have come to think of linking verbs' grammatical functions, and this way really works easily for me, but I would appreciate if someone could help diffuse my confusion because this is something that has been wracking my mind for quite a while.

  • Be and have in English (and many other languages) are sui generis. Grammarians, like other systematisers, often try to lump things together, particularly if this captures some sort of regularity. Some of the uses of be and have are in verb phrases where they are followed by (parts of) other verbs, so it is common to lump them together with other words (modals like can and will) as auxiliaries. As you point out, their syntax is different from these, so if you don't find it helpful to lump them together, you are free not to. – Colin Fine Jul 13 '15 at 8:53
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    To believe this you have to believe that there is no grammatical act of nutritional consumption involved in "I am eating this sandwich," making this a sentence no different from "I am sitting here, eating this sandwich." Unfortunately for this point of view, the first sentence may be transposed to the passive: "This sandwich is being eaten by me," something not available to the second sentence. – deadrat Jul 13 '15 at 8:58
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    Your analysis of be doing as the copula plus an adjectival (participial) phrase, while undoubtedly correct historically, and superficially plausible syntactically, fails as an adequate description of the semantics and pragmatics of modern English. Exchanges like What are you? Eating my breakfast. do not work (except as a joke), which indicates that the participial phrase does not function as a copular complement. (Posted at the same time as deadrat's comment: I think we are saying the same thing) – Colin Fine Jul 13 '15 at 8:59
  • If you look up the 'definition's of be in say AHDEL or Collins, you will find that attempts are made to assign subclasses to different usages. Intransitive (and thus main) ('I think, therefore I am/exist'); linking [I'm with the Collins analysis here: 'John is here/present/in attendance // cold // a naughty boy']; auxiliary ('John is coming'). There are indeterminate usages: 'The window was broken.' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 13 '15 at 9:08
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    Colin, so you are saying that be functions as an auxiliary and that you need an actual adjective to have a working subject complement? For example: "I am doing my homework." Am is the auxiliary because it is part of the verb string am doing, and doing is the present participle, being used to form the present progressive, with my homework functioning as the object. Is this correct? If I were to use a copular with a subject complement, it'd have to be a re-defining of me or an adjective, such as I am President or I am dangerous, right? This is what I understand thus far. – Chris Jul 13 '15 at 9:22

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