Consider these sentences:

The ice was thick enough to walk on.

They were in a hurry.

There is enough salt in it.

It is freezing.

I am right.

Are the italicized verbs auxiliary verbs?

Update: Let me explain why I asked this question.

The above sentences are from exercise 6 "Auxiliary verbs" from the book "A Practical English Grammar Exercises 1".

From the 36 sentences in exercise 6, all except the above mentioned five sentences are indeed sentences that contain auxiliary verbs (may, must, can, will, had, etc.).

So, what happened here? Why are those five sentences in this exercise? Is it an oversight?

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  • 3
    In light of your follow-up edit: the author of the book is using the word auxiliary more broadly than linguists and grammarians would use it. It looks like the author is treating any instance where the verb does not require do-support to be a case of an auxiliary. Technically, this is wrong. It was probably an intentional decision on the part of the author for simplicity: since to be never gets do-support, it patterns like the auxiliaries when forming questions and negatives. So the author just grouped it in there. – Kosmonaut May 19 '11 at 18:35

Before I start, let me remind you that an auxiliary verb (to be, to have) is called like this because it helps another verb (from NOAD: late Middle English : from Latin "auxiliarius", from auxilium ‘help.’) as in, it supports the main verb.

The ice was thick enough to walk on.

They were in a hurry.

There is enough salt in it.

I am right.

Regarding the sentences above the answer is no, because there is no complex construction, they all are "simple" tenses. The main verb is "to be" in all of them.

"Thick", "enough" and "right" are not verbs.

It is freezing.

In this case, instead, we have an ambiguous situation, since it can be: (1) the verb "is" performs the role of auxiliary verb, since "to freeze" is a verb, or (2) freezing is an adjective/adverb, and in that case, the verb "is" wouldn't be an auxiliary verb.

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    This argument is irrational. The term used for something can't tell you what it is. If some auxiliary verbs are not auxiliaries to a verb, that just means that some term other than "auxiliary verb* should have been chosen. – Greg Lee Oct 3 '15 at 22:11
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    It contradicts what you said because finite be is always an auxiliary, regardless of whether it supports another verb. It is always inverted by subject-auxiliary inversion, for example. – Greg Lee Oct 3 '15 at 22:34
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    I like arguments based on facts of language. "What Cerberus said" are not facts of language. That "is" is moved to before the subject in English yes-no questions is a fact of language. That makes it an auxiliary. It doesn't depend on a definition -- it depends on the facts. – Greg Lee Oct 3 '15 at 23:02
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    Well, then, stop repeating yourself and give me a fact of English to support your position. The fact that supports mine is that all the be verbs of the examples are moved to the beginning by subject-auxiliary inversion to form questions: "Was the ice thick enough to walk on?", and so on. Your turn. – Greg Lee Oct 3 '15 at 23:48
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    @GregLee what do you mean? How is be in be happy an auxiliary verb? Surely a verb cannot be auxiliary by definition, it will always depend on whether it is used as one. For example, see the definition here where it is described as either an auxiliary or a transitive verb. – terdon Oct 5 '15 at 15:05
  • The ice was thick enough to walk on. — copula

  • They were in a hurry. — copula

  • There is enough salt in it. — doubtful: probably a regular verb ("there exists"), or perhaps a copula

  • It is freezing. — auxiliary verb, or perhaps copula if you consider freezing an adjective instead of a participle

  • I am right. — copula

  • 5
    Just to illustrate item 4 as you describe in your answer: "It is freezing" (auxiliary) would be used to talk about ice that is in the process of freezing at that moment. "It is freezing" (copula) would be used to talk about the weather being really cold. – Kosmonaut May 19 '11 at 15:28
  • @Cerberus If I understand correctly, cupulae may or may not be auxiliary verbs, so those verbs being copulae doesn't answer my question. Are those verbs auxiliary verbs in those sentences? – Šime Vidas May 19 '11 at 15:43
  • @Šime Vidas: No they aren't, did you read the first part in my answer? – Alenanno May 19 '11 at 15:55
  • @Alenanno I'm asking for @Cerberus's opinion, if I may... :) – Šime Vidas May 19 '11 at 15:58
  • Of course you can, I wasn't denying you to do so :P – Alenanno May 19 '11 at 16:01

In most of those sentences the verb is not being used as an auxiliary (with "is freezing" being ambiguous, as others have said).

I think that what the book is getting at is that "be" forms its negative and interrogative like most auxiliaries even when it is a full verb.

When "will" is used as a full verb (rare, but it happens), it behaves like a normal verb "I did not will that!" But "be" (in most varieties of English) never takes "Does he be" or "He doesn't be".

"Have" is the other verb which can do this: We can say "I haven't any" and "Have you any" - though "I don't have any" and "Do you have any" have been gaining ground in the UK over the last forty years: I believe they were always common in the US:

I think the book is a bit misleading, as it is using "auxiliary" in a way that is useful but non-standard, referring to how the verb is used in negative and interrogative contexts.

  • @Colin (1) I thought that "will" is the future of "be". The way your 3-rd paragraph is phrased, it appears like "will" is a separate verb. (2) Isn't "I haven't any" the wrong way to write "I haven't got any"? – Šime Vidas May 19 '11 at 17:04
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    @Šime Vidas: I haven't any is perfectly fine grammar. In the US, the synonymous phrase I don't have any is more commonly used than I haven't any, but I suspect it's the other way around in the UK. For British English, apparently foreigners are sometimes taught that I haven't got any is correct and I haven't any is wrong. That's not true; they're both correct. In fact, in the US, I haven't got is considered bad grammar by the overly picky prescriptive grammar police. – Peter Shor May 19 '11 at 17:19
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    (1) It is. It is also a distinct verb with several meanings of its own. (2) No. It's very common to add "got" in like that, but it's not necessary. – user1579 May 19 '11 at 17:21
  • Very nice answer. – Jason Orendorff May 19 '11 at 17:29
  • @Rhodri: Are you sure that "Will" is the future tense of "to be"? Any source I checked disagrees with that, and I do too, actually. – Alenanno May 19 '11 at 17:31

The term auxiliary verb in English syntax is ordinarily used for a verbal element that is affected by the rule of subject-auxiliary inversion. Finite forms of be are inverted, regardless of whether they are followed by a verb to which they could be auxiliary.

So the answer to the question is yes, the forms of be in the example sentences are auxiliaries. All the other answers given to this question that I have read so far are wrong. The problem is letting yourselves get carried away by terminology. The term used for something can't tell you what it is; it only tells you what it has been called.

  • I see. I think this answer would be improved by providing an external source. It appears Geoff Pullum uses the term "auxiliary verb" this way in analysis of English grammar. – herisson Oct 4 '15 at 4:29
  • Also, regarding the terminology "auxiliary verb," do you still consider modal auxiliaries like "wouldn't" to not be verbs? If so, what is the relevant difference from "be" (is it perhaps the modals' lack of non-finite forms)? – herisson Oct 4 '15 at 4:36
  • @sumelic, So far as I know, what I've said here is completely consistent with all the literature on transformational grammar, beginning with Chomsky's 1957 Syntactic Structures. The auxiliaries include "would", and supposing that "not" is suffixed, "wouldn't*. As to whether the auxiliaries are verbs or not, that has been controversial for a long time (Chomsky said no, Ross said yes, then Jackendoff said no). I say no. – Greg Lee Oct 4 '15 at 4:52

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