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  1. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_auxiliary_verbs):

English auxiliary verbs are a small set of English verbs, which include the English modal auxiliary verbs and a few others. Although the auxiliary verbs of English are widely believed to lack inherent semantic meaning and instead to modify the meaning of the verbs they accompany ...

  1. "The Grammar of the English Tense System" by Susan Reed and Bert Capelle:

Unlike a lexical verb, an auxiliary has little or no lexical meaning: it expresses either a grammatical notion (like passive, progressive, tense) or a modal idea (like necessity, possibility) or it has no meaning at all and is used simply because an auxiliary is required in certain contexts.

  1. "Writing English" by Dr. George Stern

Auxiliary verb: any of a small subset of verbs used in such a way that the verb has no meaning, but rather, helps to perform a grammar function. Auxiliary verbs contrast with lexical verbs, which do have meaning. ... In addition to the three primary auxiliary verbs discussed above, many grammarians also include the modal verbs in this category.

  1. "Exploring Grammar Through Texts" by Cornelia Paraskevas

Contrary to the primary auxiliary (i.e. be, have, do), which do not have meaning of their own, these modals verbs contribute notios such as possibility, probability ... to the meaning of the verb that follows them. ... the modals verbs contribute additional meanings to the main verb, which primary auxiliaries do not.

  1. "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar" by Huddleston and Pullum:

... we add the auxiliary verb do. This has no meaning of its own ...

The above quotations from different grammar books provide contradictory information. Wikipedia and Dr. Stern state that auxiliary verbs (including modal auxiliary verbs) do not have an intrinsic meaning. Susan Reed and Bert Capelle state that auxiliary verbs have little or no lexical meaning. Cornelia Paraskevas states that the primary auxiliary verbs do not have meaning, but the modal auxiliary verbs do have meaning.

Question 1: Do the auxiliary verbs "be", "have" and "do" have a meaning?

Question 2: Do the modal auxiliary verbs have a meaning?

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    What do you mean by "have a meaning"?
    – alphabet
    Commented Feb 21 at 14:59
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    Aren't you missing proformation in your list? A: Nobody we know studies French; B: "Anne does." Here does takes on a very specific (non-inherent) meaning that isn't modification or modal-related.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Feb 21 at 15:05
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    @Lukas In "Do something," do is not an auxiliary. Note that, if we turn this into a question, we get e.g. "Did you do something?", adding an auxiliary do, rather than *"Did you something?"
    – alphabet
    Commented Feb 21 at 15:08
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    Some of these verbs happen to have separate, "inherent" meanings. "A piece of tape will do (suffice)." "The little girl thought you could will a pony into existence." Of course they are not models in that role.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Feb 21 at 15:11
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    @DjinnTonic Arguably 'be', 'have' and 'do' used as non-auxiliaries are different words; some even class auxiliaries separately from verbs. Commented Feb 21 at 15:16

1 Answer 1

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In 'have/take a bath', 'have' and 'take' are considered to be semantically bleached, having no or negligible meaning on their own. They are functional as opposed to lexical words:

  • I'm about to ..... a bath

obviously requires some verb in the slot, but '[V] a bath' is merely a variant on the rare 'bathe': 'have' contributes only grammaticality. Contrast 'buy' in

  • I'm about to buy a bath.

Hence, they are called light verbs or delexical verbs [Wikipedia] when used this way (contrast 'He decided to take her some roses' where 'take' is lexical, meaning 'procure and deliver in person to').

Auxiliaries are certainly carriers (a trivial name is 'helper verb'): they are used to facilitate constructions. Those without modal significance (be, have, do, and the periphrastic used to) usually have little semantic weight (though note that emphatic do ('I do have to get this done by tonight') certainly adds a layer of meaning.

But modals certainly affect the meaning of a sentence.

'I must do this' is certainly not synonymous with 'I will do this' (or 'I can do this' ...), though all of course are grammatical and idiomatic. But what the modals actually add to a statement / question etc is best explained not in the usual dictionary way of giving one or more reasonable tight-as-possible synonyms for lexical words, but in the way say ODE does:

may [verb]

    1. expressing possibility.

"that may be true"

    1. used to ask for or to give permission.

"you may confirm my identity with your Case Officer, if you wish"

[ODE; courtesy of Google]

So modals certainly affect the meaning of a sentence, but in a way subtly different from usual lexical words. And though they also overlap function words, being used to form constructions, and not really outside them, I certainly wouldn't apply the terms 'bleached of meaning' or 'delexical' to them. In fact, in 'You really ought to V', the thrust of the sentence is the responsibility [the deontic reading] or urgency [the hortative reading] conveyed by the modal 'ought [to]'.

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  • ODE? There is of course no hortative mood in English grammar --- and no optative mood, and no subjunctive mood either. Wikipedia is just silly about this, as many grammars are. Functional words? All words are either lexical or auxiliary. Are you quoting from The Comprehensive or some other out-of-date grammar?
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:34

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